John Jaroslav Kyncl
John Jaroslav Kyncl (born Jaroslav Kynčl), 1936
Jaroslav Kyncl was born in Prague on August 16, 1936. He spent his early childhood in the northern Bohemian town of Liberec, where his father, Jan Kynčl, was the president of the local branch of Živnostenská banka. In 1939, following the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland, the family was thrown out of Liberec and moved to Německý Brod (nowadays Havlíčkův Brod), where the Kynčls spent the duration of the War. They returned to Liberec in 1945, but moved away again three years later following the Communist coup, when Jaroslav’s father ‘bartered’ his post at the bank in Liberec for a more modest position out of the spotlight in Aš. Jaroslav attended secondary school in Aš, Cheb and then Čáslav before beginning his studies at Masaryk University in Brno in 1954. In 1961, Jaroslav moved to Prague, where he started his pharmacological research, developing new drugs in collaboration with the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and the company SPOFA. In this same year he married his wife, Mila Kyncl.
In May 1968, Jaroslav was allowed to travel to the United Kingdom to deliver some lectures on the work that he was doing. He was urged by one of his hosts, Dr. Hans Heller – himself a Czech émigré – to ‘put his papers in order’ in the event that Soviet troops were to invade Czechoslovakia and put a halt to the Prague Spring. Dr. Kyncl, his wife and two children duly left Czechoslovakia for Austria a week after the Soviet-led invasion of the country in August 1968. The family spent a brief period as refugees in Vienna before Jaroslav was offered an Alexander von Humboldt scholarship at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
In 1971, Jaroslav came to America alone, to accept a research position at the Cleveland Clinic. Upon securing a job one year later at Abbott Laboratories in Lake Bluff, Illinois, Jaroslav moved to the Chicago area with his family, where he has lived ever since. Among other professional accomplishments, he is credited with inventing the drug Hytrin, the first medicine to treat BPH (a frequent and serious prostate condition). An art enthusiast, Jaroslav focuses on archiving and promoting the work of Czech exile artists in particular. To this end, he has made a documentary about the late poet and artist Jiří Kolář and operates a small non-commercial exhibition space, called Gallery 500ft².
Jaroslav was a Boy Scout until the movement was outlawed in Czechoslovakia
“After the War yes, both my brother and I were very avid Boy Scouts, and I would say that the Boy Scout aspect in my growing until 1948, ’50 actually, was perhaps one of the most important influences on my life. Both the ideals and… of course, the Boy Scout movement in the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia was different than here. It was – in the United States it is a sort of organization of the fathers more than of the boys – in Czechoslovakia, the parents were completely excluded from it. And so the young children would have total autonomy. And I happened to be very fortunate, because my brother was older, I always would have friends that were about four years older or something, and so they were carrying me like a little puppy with them and I benefitted enormously and so I was actually more involved with the older children.
“In 1948, when the Communists took power, that was one of the first organizations that they were trying to eliminate. They didn’t close it overnight, but they made many limitations and eventually they did close it. And, at that time, my father, who was getting old and had only about four years to retirement, determined very smartly that it was time to move the family away from Liberec.
“They did make in Liberec a major trial with the Boy Scouts. They were all jailed and the Boy Scout group of ours was disbanded and that was very unfortunate, but I was not part of it, because we were already away from the city.”
Jaroslav was raised in the Czech Protestant tradition
“Although people today like to speak about how horrible it was under the communists and how persecuted they were, often they are exaggerating also. And I was… I must say that, religion was not that persecuted. We were, I was, having my first communion when I was 14 years old at the highest communist time in 1951. I should add when I said that though, that after the communion, which was a beautiful May day in Aš, we came out of the church and the – I don’t want to say priest, I’m not sure what word I should use for the evangelic – pastor was jailed, right away. There were police who brought him to the car and took him away and then they said that he did something criminal, which is probably not true but…So, it was bad, but we were able to have our communion fine and we were going to the church and throughout the whole regime – actually when I was at high school later on in Čáslav, that was the most difficult time of communist rule – there people could voluntarily take Catholic religion in high school, so we all turned into Catholics then and did go to the Catholic lessons just to demonstrate that we were not going to be taking everything as was at that time necessary.”
Students had to accepts aspects of Soviet dogma at university in Brno in the 1950s
“There were some – the Russian scientists Michurin or Olga Lepeshinskaya – they were complete crooks, they were claiming they can make life from useless material and all that which was nonsense. But Stalin supported it and it was a dogma that was to be accepted in Czechoslovakia also. So people like this Ferdinand Herčík or Soudek – these people that were teaching me – did have to pay lip-service to it as much as during the War we had to in the schools greet [the teacher] with ‘Heil Hitler!’ But we all somehow, the Czechs learned how to… what is right and what is not, and we were able to read what is correct and what is not.”
Jaroslav says that certain fields of science were completely blocked out of the curriculum
“The university that I was going to was the place where the first greatest geneticist Gregor Mendel, who today is considered to be the father of genetics, had been. His teaching was completely forbidden, it was considered by the communists… it was called ‘the reactionary Mendel-Morgan theories.’ Because Stalin didn’t want heritage to be important. They wanted that indoctrination was more important than genetics. So Mendel, whom we all know about, was forbidden at that time. But you know everybody was paying a little bit lip-service, and nobody really took it seriously.”
Jaroslav says he came to America for a number of reasons
“I was born and I knew that I was going to the United States, without any communists or anybody else. In fact, my wife’s father was at one point showing movies in this little village that they were living in. And he gave us a private performance of Kazan’s movie America, America – I don’t know if you saw that movie, which is about a little Turkish boy who has it in his fate to go to America and he goes through all sorts of things and he would kill, he would betray his wife to get the money for [his boat] and everything too, and he eventually gets to America and is happy there. And when we went through that movie I told my father-in-law, I said ‘Father you see? The same way I’m going to America with Mila.’ And he was very upset of course, naturally, we already had two little children. But I said that, so I felt.
“But it was also a very natural thing in my work that, at the time what I was working on, I could not do in the Czech Republic, then I couldn’t even do it in Germany anymore, so I went for this Cleveland Clinic in order to be able to continue with my own work. So in order to continue and keep myself in my profession, it is somewhat like with sportspeople – if you want to be a good tennis player you have to play, and so I had to be in those institutions doing those experiments and this, otherwise I would not have been able to continue.
“And the other thing was of course the aspect of the Russians, and with the invasion we really expected that the Russians are really going to impose their… Russify Czechoslovakia. And then, of course, we did expect the same thing in Germany.”
Jaroslav’s wife and children first saw America in 1971
“I saved enough that we would have a vacation together, bought a Chevy Impala convertible for 500 bucks, went to Earl Scheib where they sprayed any color you want for $27.79 – so I painted it gold, to make an impression on my wife and children, and we made a rendezvous in Denver. My wife was flying from Frankfurt with the kids for eight hours, I think, via New York. And I was driving the Chevy Impala convertible for three days to get to Denver at the same hour, which was quite nice. And then we made six weeks’ vacation, I had four weeks and then I made some lectures in the congresses in Kansas City and in New Hampshire. And so we put it into, we incorporated it into the vacation and we made a figure of eight through the United States – coast to coast – in six weeks. It was many, many thousand miles. And this sealed it, that when we came to Kennedy Airport then, the kids said ‘We are not going to some stupid Germany, we are going to stay here!’”
The Kyncls were considered German when they first arrived in Illinois
“They considered them German, so their American school-mates called them ‘Krauts,’ and they were even fighting them occasionally, so we had to tell them that they are not German. And on the other hand, there were a lot of Germans here in the community who thought that we were genuine German and they came to us and offered us all sorts of help, and they were very nice people and we have a lot of friendships. And after all we were, at that time, more than one hour driving distance from Chicago, so we didn’t have any communication with the Czech community. Only several years later, we started to go to the Czech places like Cicero and Berwyn, we discovered the Czech bakeries, but we really were not searching for it.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History