Milan Hauner was born in 1940 in Gotha, Germany. His Czech father, Vilém, married his German mother, Gertrud, when she was threatened with sterilization (because of a handicap) by the Nazi government under the Nuremberg Laws. During WWII, Milan’s grandfather and uncle were arrested and executed on charges of anti-Nazi activities. Milan moved to Prague with his parents when he was just over one year old and grew up there. Vilém was a renowned book binder and Gertrud worked as a seamstress. Both Milan’s parents were deaf and, in addition to speaking German and Czech, he and his younger brother Roland learned sign language. From an early age, Milan loved history and says he had access to many older books, including some that were eventually banned by the Communist government. He attended elementary school and gymnázium in Prague, and began studying history and literature at Charles University in 1957. Upon graduation, Milan was conscripted into the Czechoslovak Army and served for two years. He remembers spending most of his second year in the army in prison as punishment for ‘breaches of discipline’ and his outspoken ways.
After leaving the army, Milan returned to Charles University for postgraduate work in history and earned his doctorate. He also spent this time applying for visas to study abroad. In 1966, he was accepted to a one year study program in France, and, after some friends who were Communist Party members vouched for him, was given a visa. Milan returned from France in the fall of 1967, and the next year was able to secure a travel visa to the United Kingdom. He left Czechoslovakia in the first week of August in 1968 with a plan to work for one month and then travel the British Isles for another four weeks. Milan was picking fruit on a farm in East Anglia when he heard of the Warsaw Pact invasion on August 21; he decided to stay in Britain and moved to London shortly thereafter. In London, he joined an organization that assisted Czechoslovak refugees and soon began studying at Cambridge where he received his doctorate in English. Milan married his wife, Magdalena, also a scholar, and he built a career in academia. In 1980, Magdalena received a job offer from the University of Wisconsin, and the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin. Subsequently, Milan taught and held research positions at several universities and institutions in the United States.
Milan and Magdalena have three children who all speak Czech. He says he felt ‘exhilarated’ upon hearing about the Velvet Revolution, and has returned to Prague since then to teach. Today, Milan is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, and his areas of expertise include Czech and military history. In 2011, Milan was awarded a stipend to conduct research at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He lives with his wife in Madison, Wisconsin.
“My parents, between them, used mostly sign language, but with us they insisted on lip reading and actually an oral communication, because they were both trained. It’s interesting; the schools for the deaf in Germany and the former Czechoslovakia used both methods in educating them. My grandmother, my Czech grandmother, was one of the persons who very much insisted on the education of deaf people. She traveled abroad – was still under the old monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian system – and consulted specialists, purchased literature in German and French, translated it, and she helped to improve the teaching of deaf people in the former Bohemia, later Czechoslovakia. She’s very well remembered.”
“One day there was a knock on the door and I went to open the door, and there was a tall Russian officer standing. He had a brown bag under his arm, which will appear later in the story, and one eye was a glass eye. I had never seen somebody with a glass eye, so I walked around him and tried to see the eye turning after him, but it was all frozen always directly in front of him. When he saw that I was lip reading my mother and we used some signs, gesticulated with hands, he must have realized my mother was deaf. I don’t know what his mission was. I think that later I learned that these last-minute patriots sent this Russian to our apartment and that there’s a German woman there, take her out in the prison, or the camps which were built up around Prague for German civilians. He was a bit embarrassed, so he asked for a glass of water, in Russian вода [voda], in Czech voda, it’s the same, I understood him. So my mother gave him a glass of water and he drank it – it was warm outside – quickly, and he asked for another one, and then she brought a bottle of sweetener which was kind of syrup which we used during the War because there was no sugar, some fruit sweetener, and that broke the ice. He started to play with us, with me and my brother, and after a while he simply gave us this little brown bag he brought in and that was full of cherries. So that is my first lasting impression of the Russian barbarians. He in fact was very humane.”
Love of History
“I was obsessed with history, it was clear. Everyone in my class knew that I was obsessed with history; I had the best knowledge of history in the classroom, always challenging the teacher and reading history books under the desk. I had a vast library because due to the fate which befell my relatives on my father’s side, my grandfather and uncle, when they were arrested, some of their books – if they were not confiscated – landed in our house. So I had three libraries accumulated by my grandmother, my grandfather, and my uncle. I never managed to read even a fraction of them.”
“When I applied to go to the university and the director refused to give support to my application because he was uneasy to see that I was born in Germany and that my mother was German, and therefore he wanted to speak with both of my parents. He felt rather ashamed when my father told him that he lost his father and uncle during the Nazi occupation. So he immediately apologized. So these are the two sides of my upbringing, if you like.”
“I returned to London and joined an organization which was called Toc H which is a branch of Quakers. And for just some food and shelter I was helping to extract political news from the newspapers that was every morning on the front desk, on the wall, and what we provided was information about jobs and shelter for Czech and Slovak students who were fugitives. And I must say the reaction of the English people was extraordinary. Almost everyone who came to us received an address where he could stay overnight and some little money. I think it was kind of a late reaction to the Munich complex among the English people; they felt the analogy was so striking between the Nazi invasion and the Soviet invasion, so they were helping us.”