George Malek (born Jiří Mládek)
George Malek was born in Tábor in southern Bohemia. His father, Jan, owned a factory that produced auto parts while his mother, Marie, stayed home to raise George and his two brothers. Shortly after the Communist coup in 1948, George’s father’s business was nationalized and he was sent to prison for over one year. In the meantime, George’s mother began working at a co-op making stuffed animals. As a child, George was especially interested in woodworking and mathematics. He attended a technical school in Tábor where he studied building construction and equipment. Although he hoped to study at university, George was not initially admitted and, instead, joined the military. After training for one year as a paratrooper, he was stationed in Aš where he was tasked with manning a radio system and intercepting German military conversations and transmissions. George was then admitted to ČVUT (Czech Technical University in Prague) where he studied computer engineering. He began to think about leaving the country to improve his job prospects and, shortly after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968, crossed the border into Austria with his wife and young son, Robert. George’s father had helped them to secure visas under the pretense of visiting an uncle in Vienna.
George and his family stayed in Vienna for just over a month while awaiting immigration paperwork. They arrived in Hamilton, Ontario, and settled in Toronto in 1968. After taking English classes for six weeks, George began working and was admitted to the University of Toronto where he earned his doctorate. It was in 1976 that George first returned to Czechoslovakia to visit his parents. That same year, his company transferred him to California. By 1981, George had switched jobs and was sent to work on a software project in Japan. There, he met his second wife, Yuko. The couple married in 1983, returned to the United States, and had a son, Alan. In 1988, George set up a company in California’s Silicon Valley called Apogee Software Inc; he remains the firm’s president and CEO. Ten years later, he set up Apogee.cz in Prague as an out-sourcing partner of Apogee Software. He and his wife Yuko (the firm’s CFO) often visit Prague, both for business purposes and to enjoy the opera, ballet, and concerts that the Czech capital has to offer. The couple are proud of an apartment they own in a 14th-century historical building in Prague’s Old Town. George and Yuko are planning to ‘retire partially’ in the Czech Republic in 2013. They are in the process of reconstructing an old hunting lodge in Mirovice in southern Bohemia, which was owned by the Schwarzenberg family until 1938. George and Yuko currently live in Los Gatos, California.
George attended ČVUT and worked with computers in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s
“When I first did computers, those were Russian computers with vacuum tubes. So the full room of vacuum tubes was about as powerful as my little laptop, or even less powerful. Then professor [Antonín] Svoboda – who I knew personally – he left the country and he essentially designed the first family of IBM computers. So, judging from that, we were not that much behind, if a professor of computers from Czech Republic could come here and start a century of revolution in modern computers. Then of course, silicon came, integrated circuits came, and it just kept rolling.”
Were you able to read journals being written in America and Britain? Was that possible at that time?
“If it was strictly technical information, I could get my hands on it. It wasn’t easy, and it was censored.”
So how could you do this? Through the university library?
“Mostly through the university library. And between guys, sometimes, we would distribute things that we’d obtain in a somewhat questionable way and we would distribute it among ourselves.”
George recalls his emotions concerning the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion
“We saw it as just the beginning. We thought that Dubček is just a temporary figure that will help us get to where we want to get, but then he would have to go because he was still a communist after all.”
So what did you do on August 21?
“We went to the streets, we talked to them [the soldiers], and it essentially was pretty much hopeless. There were some guys who would throw the Molotov cocktails at the tanks, but it was pretty much useless. You cannot fight the tanks and an armed army with bare hands and with stones. And if you do, they will shoot you. So then I went home.”
Was it scary? How scary was it?
“It was scary, but it was extremely frustrating. Extremely frustrating that a big country like them can come and do this and there is zilch you can do. You just shut up and pretend it didn’t happen. That was the worst part of it.”
Shortly after the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, George left Czechoslovakia
“My father, he had a lot of connections, so he found a so-called uncle in Vienna that sent me an invitation. You had to have an invitation, so I got an invitation from the imaginary uncle in Vienna to visit Vienna for five days. So we could take with us only what was for five days. At the time, my son was four years old. I had my university papers and everything and I put it in his teddy bear. I sewed it inside and he was holding it. Then we stopped on the border and the Czech army people with Russian soldiers were going through the train and checking your papers. So I showed him my papers and he knows that I am escaping. He talked to the Russian guy and then the Czech guy said to my son ‘Hey, where are you going?’ He said ‘No, I won’t tell you,’ and holding his teddy. And then I looked at the Czech guy and I said ‘Please, let us go’ and he looked at the Russian guy and said ‘Oh, they’re ok. Let them go.’ People in the next compartment, they took them out, they lined them up in the railway station, and they took them to prison, so it was this close.”
It was in 1998 that George started a software company in Prague
“Well, there were two reasons. One reason was, I wanted to do something for the Czech Republic. I wanted to set up a company there; I wanted to get Czech people and pay them good salaries and help the country in some way, and this is a good way to help. The second reason was, quite frankly, Czech programmers are extremely good, but still pretty reasonable. I studied at university; I have a lot of contacts there; I knew people. The guy who is leading my company in the Czech Republic, he is one of the leading figures at university, so he could find me people who were the best of the best. I treated them well; they come to the U.S. for one year or so for a visit and for training, and I did something for country this way.”
While George appreciates Czech culture, he says that he considers himself a ‘world citizen’
“I like Czech food. I cook it whenever I can. We like Czech music. We like music in general. We like Czech composers. Smetana is one of my favorite composers; Dvořák, of course. But so is Bach, so is Vivaldi. I don’t really see myself as being a citizen of some specific country. I see myself as a world citizen. Wherever I am, I am happy as long as they treat me well and I return the favor.”
Category: Bay Area, Oral History