Otomar Hájek was born in 1930 in Belgrade, Serbia, where his father, František, a military officer and diplomat in the Czechoslovak Armed Forces, was stationed. When his father became head of military intelligence in 1935, Otomar’s family moved back to Prague, but then left again four years later when his father was appointed military attaché to the Netherlands. Following demobilization of the Czechoslovak military, Otomar’s father became an officer in the French Foreign Legion, and the family moved to Algeria. The Hájeks subsequently spent time in Southern France before they were evacuated to London in 1940. After his father died in a car accident in 1941, Otomar’s mother Ružena, despite having no work experience, found a job as a radio announcer at the BBC. During WWII, Otomar attended the Czechoslovak State School of Great Britain. Otomar, his mother, and his brother moved back to Czechoslovakia after the War, and he says they were very happy to be back.
Otomar completed high school in 1949 and says he was lucky to be able to continue his studies in mathematics at Charles University, as many of his classmates were not given that opportunity. Otomar says that his university years passed relatively quietly because he was not politically active. He says he is proud of the fact that he was never asked to join the Communist Party, because officials knew he was a ‘hopeless’ cause. He remembers in particular being sent to a labor camp for one summer while still a student. Upon finishing his degree, Otomar applied for postgraduate studies, but, because of his father’s intelligence background, he was rejected. He was placed as a junior assistant at ČVUT (Czech Technical University in Prague), in the faculty of electrical engineering. Otomar says he was fired about six years later as a result of ‘political changes’ and had a very hard time finding a job, again because of his father’s previous intelligence position. He finally found work at a computer research institute where he and his colleagues were tasked with creating Czech computers. Otomar remembers this being very difficult, as they had little to no access to equipment and scientific knowledge from outside of the country. He was later able to return to research at Charles University, where he received his doctorate in 1963.
Otomar attempted unsuccessfully to leave the country several times, both legally and illegally. He finally had the opportunity in 1966 when he was permitted to accept a job at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for one year and bring his wife, Olga. Otomar says that he felt obligated to return to Czechoslovakia after the year, but his brother convinced him otherwise. In Cleveland, Otomar and Olga had their son, Michael, and became involved in the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU). They became American citizens in 1974. Otomar is well known in his field of applied mathematics and was a Humboldt scholar at TU Darmstadt in the mid-1970s. His son Michael speaks Czech, and his wife Olga cooks traditional Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian food. Otomar and Olga frequently visit the Czech Republic and are in regular contact with their families there, thanks to Skype. They live in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
“Things seemed right; not entirely right, but somewhat right. Things were far worse in Poland, where a person who was a Polish politician who lived on our street in London by the name of Mikołajczyk – they settled accounts with him by machine gun. Assassinations and so on. Things in Prague seemed to be ok, but not exactly right. And the bottom dropped out of things completely in February 1948.”
“Things were getting progressively worse at the university. I kept my head down, I did not collaborate with anybody with anything. I was not a member of the quite standard communist youth organization, kept that quiet. They sent me to a labor camp for one summer after the first year at university, where things were bad. Really bad. We were guarded by armed guards, work was very heavy, food was terrible, hygiene was unbelievable – there was an epidemic of typhus and essentially everybody got it. I don’t know why I was sent there. I think it was a sort of general warning, or a matter of principle; ‘Let the guy work his way.’”
“Essentially, immediately after the Communist takeover, we destroyed all our address books and diaries. We started avoiding all people who weren’t extremely close friends, because we would endanger them or they would endanger us once they were arrested. Whoever didn’t do that caused havoc among people. We didn’t read newspapers. We didn’t read magazines because there were very few of them. Books, new ones, weren’t very interesting. We borrowed books, one from the other; these in time became tattered and we still have a couple of those here. Social life was very circumscribed. One did not want to endanger others and be endangered by them. So if someone was your friend, he was really a close friend.”
“We were supposed to come up with Czech computers. We started out about six years behind the world situation, state of knowledge of computer design, manufacturing, and so on, and ended up about thirty years later [behind] because it was so slow. No contact with the outside world; occasionally we got a magazine, a professional magazine. Complete isolation, even from the Russians and the Poles.”
Do you think the nature of coming into a brand new industry, like creating computers allowed for a certain leeway?
“Yes, very much so. Very much so.”
That you didn’t have the bureaucracy that didn’t understand…
“They didn’t understand. There’s a standard story of a minister coming to inspect and learning about semiconductors and saying, ‘Socialist engineering needs conductors. Not semiconductors. Complete conductors.’”
Limited Access to Information
“What was very unpleasant for anyone in the sciences was access to periodical literature. That was almost non-existent. One thing that is curious and somewhat funny – we got Russian books. I soon learned that we had no textbooks and I learned Russian at university, not in high school where I was supposed to learn it. Technically, I was extremely proficient in Russian. The Russians produced a lot of books themselves and sold them extremely cheaply. A poor university student could acquire a reasonable library. There was a shop in almost all larger cities, which on Friday mornings, showed new acquisitions and we rushed there. And they also then started translating American, good American textbooks. So with a couple of years delay, one could see what was happening. But, otherwise, no contact with world science. This probably hurt physicists far more than mathematicians who needed this, and publications, and occasional contact with other colleagues. They [physicists] need labs, apparatus, extremely expensive things. So a number of people who otherwise would have gone into physics and into medicine went into mathematics.”
“Our impression when we first came to the U.S., Olga and me – Olga had not been out of the country before, I had spent the War outside and so on. We felt – we agreed that both of us got this impression individually, not by osmosis – as if we had come home. As if we had come back to pre-War Czechoslovakia or something. People were normal, in a sense. As if we were beginning a normal life again. Our son was born here. He prides himself on being the first American. He was the first one who had a passport. We had re-entry permits and he had a passport.”
So do you think the system was what turned the people into something different?
“Yes. There was social engineering. There was even the phrase ‘an engineer of human souls.’ Definitely. There was an explicit attempt to do that, to change people’s natures, to change the nature of a human family. Not only society and community, but even a family.”