Joseph Ben-David (born Josef Polák), 1920
Joseph Ben-David was born in Prague in 1920. He lived with his parents and his younger brother in the center of the Czechoslovak capital. His father owned a printing ink factory and, when Joseph left high school, he joined his father at work and learned the trade. As a teenager, Joseph became aware of the Unitarian church in Prague and became a speaker and activist for social causes. He was also a youth leader for the Zionist Youth Movement. Joseph’s father died shortly after the Nazis occupied Prague in 1939 and, in the fall of that year, Joseph took a transport to Palestine. His mother intended to follow on the next transport; however, it did not leave as scheduled and she was deported to a concentration camp where she died.
Joseph arrived in Palestine in 1940 and settled in Tel Aviv. He established a lab where he produced printing media – ink, cement, glue and printing rollers. As a conscientious objector during the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, Joseph worked as a hygiene officer and later became a sanitary officer in Jerusalem. He also continued his activist efforts in social justice.
Joseph moved to New York City in 1954 and shortly thereafter became involved in the American Humanist Association in New York, first as a speaker and later as chapter president. Joseph also created a publication reporting on smoking and health which appeared in Reader’s Digest. In the early 1970s, Joseph founded the Church of Humanism, an organization with which he is still instrumental as senior minister. He has traveled back to Prague several times, mostly in the capacity of social activism. In 1979, his Church of Humanism named six dissidents (including Václav Havel) in Czechoslovakia as Humanists of the Year. In more recent years, Joseph has become involved in the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU). Today he lives in Manhattan with his wife Alyson.
Joseph recalls his first encounter at the Unitarian church in Prague
“I was once walking from the Charles Bridge through the street where the Unitaria is and it was raining, and so I wanted to be somewhere to prevent me from getting wet, and so I went to the Unitaria and there was this little man speaking so persuasively, with such a pathos and with so much depth in terms of the thoughts that he was expressing that I was pretty much taken by that. And that’s how I started to go to the Unitaria, and they introduced me then to philosophy and psychology so that when I was about 17 or 18 I was already able, as a cultural secretary of the Unitarian youth, to deliver a speech on the interpretation of dreams by Sigmund Freud at that age. So I was an early speaker.”
In 1939, Joseph boarded a transport to Palestine
“I experienced the first ripples of the Holocaust. I lived under Hitler six months so I saw what was going on and I understood the evil of the Nazi regime, but I saved my life by leaving with the last transport. If I wouldn’t have done that I would be dead by now and I couldn’t do this interview.”
And how was that arranged?
“There were about 1,000 to 2,000 people who bribed the Germans – they had to pay – and the Germans were very strictly organized. They put us on a steamship on the Donau [the Danube] in Bratislava, and the Nazis were standing with guns on the ship until we went to the Black Sea, all the way through Europe. Once we arrived in the Black Sea they disappeared and we were on our own. And that’s how I saved my life.”
Joseph talks about some of his return trips to Prague
“I was there about three times under the Communists, in the late ‘70s or ‘80s. As a matter of fact, I even participated in one of the demonstrations on Václavské náměstí [Wenceslaus Square] when they came with the water cannons. When Havel and five other dissidents were sentenced to years in jail, I read about it in the New York Times. I decided we had to do something, so the Church of Humanism elected them as Humanists of the Year, and it was the second award amongst these hundreds of awards that he got – the Church of Humanism. You can see it on the internet; we are there. So in connection with that I was also visiting Prague, and the first time when I went there the minister of the Prague congregation was telling me: ‘Don’t give it to me. You will get in trouble; they will never let you back and you are not doing anything good to him by giving him an award.’”
Did you meet any dissidents?
“I attended the last meeting of Charter 77. It was the last meeting, and I have actually a photograph with them.”
Where was that held?
“I don’t know; in some hotel or something. After that the Charter was dissolved and turned into a political party. But they didn’t want to accept that award because they were not sure what the Church of Humanism is and so on. But after I appeared at that meeting, I convinced them and they became so enthusiastic that when we were giving the award in the Unitarian Church it was packed. And five of these dissidents, including Uhl, were there and spoke, and I have pictures and I think even a video of that meeting.”
Category: New York City, Oral History