Zdenek Hruban was born in 1921 in Přerov, Moravia. His father was a mathematics professor who had studied in Austria while Czechs were still subject to Austro-Hungarian rule. By the time Zdenek himself was old enough to attend university, WWII had broken out, and all the universities in what was then the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were closed by the Nazis. During this time, Zdenek went to the University of Rostock in Germany to study medicine. After the War, he returned to study in Hradec Králové, northern Bohemia, where he says there was standing room only in lectures, since there was such a demand for higher education.
Zdenek left Czechoslovakia in June 1948, after his family received threats from the Communist police. He crossed the border into Germany near Mariánské Lázně with the help of a guide sent by his sister, who had escaped ahead of him. Zdenek spent one year as a trainee nurse in Horton Road Mental Hospital in England before returning to the refugee camps in Germany and working for the International Refugee Organization pending an American visa. Zdenek was sponsored to come to the United States by an acquaintance of his sister, who had already settled with her husband in Milwaukee. He himself arrived in Wisconsin in 1951. In 1952, Zdenek gained a scholarship to the University of Chicago, where he proved a brilliant student. He became a professor of pathology at the University of Chicago in 1973. One of the achievements that Zdenek is best known for is the foundation of the Archives of the Czechs and Slovaks Abroad (ACASA), a collection of more than 10,000 books, periodicals and other materials housed at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. Zdenek lived in Hyde Park, Chicago, with his wife Jarmila Hruban until his death in September 2011.
Crossing the Boarder
“In ’48 when the Sokol Slet was having a Prague exhibition, I crossed the border – it was easier to cross, illegally. My sister was already in Germany because her husband was the secretary of the American Institute in Prague, so he was told as soon as the prisons were empty, he would be arrested. So I thought that the best thing would be to go before they are after my family.
“I had a rucksack with dried salami and an English dictionary. I had contacted my sister who lived in Germany and she sent a guide who took me across the border. He was a very brave man, [he had] no sense of danger. We crossed at night, it was several hours walk.”
Archives of Czechs and Slovaks
“There were two people who collected newspapers in Chicago and they were Karel Prchal, head of the Sokol, and Josef Cada, the Roman Catholic professor at the college [Saint Procopius in Lisle], and when I spoke with the Czech librarian here at the University of Chicago, Vaclav Laska, he gave me three shelves where I could store the newspapers. Well, it grew into a much bigger collection. It took some kind of active participation to get newspapers from other places outside of Chicago. I remember my friend Mr. Marek (whose picture is on the wall), he took me in the car – because I don’t drive – he took me in the car to Michigan and we collected some newspapers there.”
Is there one thing in the collection that you love the most?
“We have a handkerchief which Tomas Garrigue Masaryk used!”