Mojmir Povolny (born Mojmír Povolný), 1921
Mojmir Povolny was born in Měnín, a small village near Brno, in 1921. His father owned a local liquor store and his mother stayed at home, raising him and his younger brother, Bořivoj. When Mojmir was old enough to go to gymnázium, he was sent to Brno to study, where he lived with his aunt and uncle. Mojmir’s studies were interrupted by WWII. He was sent to work in the Minerva munitions factory in Boskovice for the duration of the War. In 1945, he enrolled as a law student at Masaryk University in Brno. As an undergraduate he became involved with the Czechoslovak National Socialist or Beneš Party and, within that, an influential group of students and professors called Oddělení pro vědeckou politiku [The Section for the Scientific Study of Politics].
After his studies, Mojmir was invited to work for the Beneš Party at its headquarters in Prague. He worked there until just after the Communist coup d’état in February 1948. He left Czechoslovakia two months later; he says he found out afterwards that the Communist secret police had helped him escape. Mojmir was sponsored by the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees to come and study at the University of Chicago in 1950. He became an American citizen in 1956. From 1974 to 1989 he was chairman of the Council of Free Czechoslovakia. Following a career in academia, Mojmir retired and lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, with his wife Joy. He died on August 21, 2012. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Joy, and their two children.
Mojmir remembers the impact of the Munich Agreement on him and his peers
“When you are 16 or 15, you don’t know or feel that you are a participant in a great enterprise, but when you are hit, or when that enterprise is hit, as it was by the Munich crisis and what this implied for the future – because this was one event and, my generation, we were aware enough to see and to know what to anticipate… We were finishing at the gymnázium, the country became occupied by the Germans, we lost our building, we had to share a building with other schools which were not occupied. My gymnázium, which was a very modern building – opened, I think, in 1928 or 1929 – was immediately occupied by the German state security.
“But at the same time, you know, we were at that time when we were going to take dancing lessons, which meant for the first time to be with girls. It was a very important moment in a 17-year-old’s life, and then you didn’t know what was going to happen after that. You graduated, and after my graduation, the Germans began to recruit – to simply conscript, rather – young people to work in armaments factories.”
Mojmir describes the change in relations between Czechs and Germans after the signing of Munich
“Our neighbor was a decommissioned officer who had been in the Czechoslovak Army, who had two boys, roughly my age and my cousin from that same villa’s age. When we were kids we would play in the street, soccer and that, we had scooters and we would borrow and lend them and all that. The next neighbor was the principal of a German school in Czechoslovakia, his two daughters were teachers there. Come the crisis, the daughters turned out to be Nazis and very unpleasant. In my memory, the symbol of this was that they began to wear white stockings. The two boys appeared in the uniform of the SA [German Sturmabteilung], were immediately mobilized; that decommissioned officer was taken into the German Army. We never saw the boys again because, we learned, they were killed on the Russian front. So that’s a different kind of relationship, you didn’t hate them but they became alien, and I think that it was this alienation which was probably the worst part.”
It was the Russian army which liberated Mojmir’s hometown of Měnín
“The pilots were very young boys, 21, 22 years old, you know, and cheerful kids. And they simply took a bedroom and slept in the bedroom until when they were going to leave. And you know you welcomed them, you were glad that they came. We had two of them, and one day the two of them came and left in the morning and locked their bedroom. My mother [normally] sort of made their beds and cleaned up after them and when they came back, mother said ‘Well, why did you lock the room?’ They said ‘Don’t worry about that, grandma, we will do it;’ she said ‘No! Leave it open! I want to clean the room.’ Well, the next day, again, it was locked. So she said ‘No, no, no – you leave the room open! I’m coming in,’ and she wedged her foot or something in the doorway. And then she smelt an unpleasant smell. And they sort of gave in. So she went to the armoire and they had two rabbits in it.
“So she said ‘Where did you get those rabbits?’ ‘Oh!’ they said, ‘we were given the rabbits.’ ‘Who gave you the rabbits? Nobody gives people rabbits!’ ‘Well,’ they said, ‘we found them in another house.’ ‘So you take them back!’ They were, you know, kids and she was a woman of 50. So she sent them to give the rabbits back, but then they left her a very touching thank you note written on a piece of paper, giving us the address to visit them at in Moscow.”
Mojmir talks about leaving Czechoslovakia in 1948
“I had complete confidence in those people, we were working together. And so I was told ‘You be on this particular evening at the streetcar station, there will be a car and two people and they will take you to the border, and so I did go. So, I went there, there were two young men, one of them was in the [Beneš Party] youth movement, and we drove to the border. There was a border guard, who stopped us, got in the car and took us all the way practically to the border. We saw the barriers on the road and he said ‘Well, we’ll have to stop here. You get out, and walk about a quarter of a mile/half a kilometer along that road here, and then you will see on the other side the lights of the German village. You cross the fields, and in the German village report to the German police.’ The border guard wished me good luck and said ‘come back and don’t forget us.’
“Now, after the Communist regime fell, it came out that the escape was arranged by a branch of [Communist] state security, who wanted to get me out in order to eventually become their agent or something.”
Mojmir’s wife teases him for being ‘more American than the Americans’
“My mother was afraid about me going to Chicago with all those gangsters and worried whether I would survive. Well, you know, at midnight after the last lesson and the last coffee we would walk to Jackson Park and the lake, and come back safe to start the morning fresh. And I had to study also, one of my fields was American diplomacy and diplomatic history and for that I had to look into the larger picture of American history. And I found it rather inspiring and encouraging, especially in the situation in which we found ourselves. Somehow I learned to understand America and its shortcomings and the way that it gets out of them, because the country, the people, the nation has a cushion, which is several layers. One is the cushion of values and ideals. One is the cushion of resources, and especially in those days, you know, 60 years ago, who would have questioned America not having the resources? And of the institutions, however imperfect they were, they somehow worked. So [my wife] Joy keeps saying ‘You’re more American than a native American.’ And I say ‘Well, it’s a compliment!’”
Mojmir describes how he combined activism with daily family life
“Hundreds and thousands of us left thinking that we are going to be back in five years time. People lived in this kind of provisional state for years and years. Now, as I said, I was young enough, I was lucky enough, I could study, I could establish myself. So the hope that fed you in the beginning of the homeland to which I’m going to return began to play a secondary role in your planning of your life, in your orientation. I think the trick is, under those conditions, to transcend from the provisorium. It is no longer, however limited it may be, a provisional phase of your life, but you do the best with your life that you can. The trick was then to combine it with a certain amount of living devotion to the cause for which you left. And you know, maybe if you lived in the provisional, maybe you would be more tenacious and more active and more this, but that’s not how life sort of works. And you know, I found a wife who was very supportive, we agreed when we met in 1955 that if I go back to Czechoslovakia, she will come to Czechoslovakia. But if you asked her 10-15 years later, when those little kids were all around running about here, then I don’t know.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History