Karel Jr. Raška
Karel Raška Jr., born 1939
Karel Raška Jr. was born in Prague in 1939. His parents, Karel and Helena, were renowned physicians who made lasting contributions to their fields. He has one younger brother, Ivan. Karel remembers the waning months of WWII and, in particular, the bombing of Prague during which the house next door to his was hit. He attended an English-language elementary school until 1948, when it closed following the Communist coup. He continued to study English through high school and enjoyed science classes; Karel says that his education was ‘excellent.’ He studied medicine at Charles University and, upon graduating in 1962, served in the Czech Air Force as a flight surgeon. Karel then worked in research at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.
In 1965, Karel was awarded a two-year fellowship at Yale University. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1967, at a time when major changes were happening in the country. Karel says that he was aware of the reforms Alexander Dubček was introducing rather early as his mother was a non-voting member of the Central Committee and privy to policy decisions. However, Karel also says that he knew the Prague Spring would ‘not end well.’ He had exit permits for himself, his wife, Jana, and his son, Karel, as he was due to give a lecture in Italy and, on August 21, 1968, following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led troops, Karel and his family drove to Austria. They stayed for a few months in Switzerland, where Karel’s father and brother were working at the time. Karel sailed to the United States on October 14, 1968. His wife and son followed two weeks later. In the wake of the invasion, Karel’s parents were both fired from their jobs. His mother would work in agriculture for the next 20 years.
Karel secured a job as an assistant professor at Rutgers Medical School (now the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School – University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey). He and his wife, Jana, also a physician, have stayed with the institution for their entire careers, and Karel is now the chair of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. He and Jana are both visiting professors at Charles University Faculty of Medicine. Karel and Jana’s younger son, Francis, was born in the United States. Both their sons speak fluent Czech, and Karel III, a cardiologist, studied at Charles University, while Francis, a historian, is a professor in the American Studies department at Charles University. Karel’s grandchildren also speak Czech fluently and hold Czech citizenship. Karel became involved with the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) in the 1990s. He was a board member for several years and served as president of the organization from 2006 to 2012. Today, Karel and Jana split their time between Highland Park, New Jersey, and Prague, where they own an apartment.
Karel talks about his relatives
“My maternal grandfather was a very famous scientist, a close personal friend of Albert Einstein in Switzerland. Then my grandmother, a Russian lady, went during WWI as a volunteer to the Serbian Army as a doctor and fell into Austrian [hands] and was taken as a POW. So then grandfather left Switzerland and went to work as a volunteer in a military hospital in Pardubice, and then came the end of WWI and they stayed in Czechoslovakia. And then my uncle, my father’s older brother, was sort of a hero of the WWII resistance. He was a professional soldier. He was in this Obrana národa, Defense of the Nation, resistance group and he was executed in Berlin.
“My grandparents were physicians. Both my parents were physicians, actually very famous ones. Both of them… They are both dead now, but they are considered to be founders of their specific science field in the former Czechoslovakia. My father’s name was Karel Raška and he was world-class, one of the best epidemiologists in the world of the last century. His main achievement was preparing the program for the eradication of smallpox for the world, which was successfully completed in 1978. And my mother is a founder of modern Czechoslovak pharmacology. All the chairmen throughout the country were her graduate students – that means Czech Republic and Slovakia.”
Karel fondly recalls his schooling
“I had favorite teachers when I was in high school and middle school because, at that time, a significant portion were the types of pre-War gymnázium professors, very well educated, people with doctorates and excellent ones. Not all of them. There were some losers among them too. But it’s very interesting that in high school we had several very young teachers who were relatively fresh graduates of the universities and they were outstanding, and, although it is now more than 55 years since we graduated, we are getting together at least once a year in Prague and some of those teachers come to all these meetings. Now they are in their mid-80s or so and it’s very interesting. They’re still coming.”
From 1965 to 1967, Karel studied at Yale University. He returned home just as big changes were occurring
“I spent two very busy and very enjoyable years in America and then I came back. It was the Prague Spring; it was extremely interesting; however, from early March, I was 100 percent sure that I knew that it will not end well. I had exit permits for the members of my family – my oldest son and my wife and myself.”
How did you get those?
“I got invited to lecture in Italy. It was free travel. In 1968 it was completely free travel. One just had to pay a few crowns for an exit permit, but it was free at that time. So when the liberation occurred on August 21, I emigrated that day. I waited till the late afternoon [to see] if there would be mobilization; when it was not, I drove to Austria with my wife and son.”
Karel says that many fellow emigres returned to Czechoslovakia, for various reasons
“Emigration is not a panacea. Culture shock, particularly if you live somewhere outside of a major metropolitan area, ladies often were not that happy here – everybody has different reasons. Somebody feels here at home; I happened to be one of those. From the very beginning here, I felt like it’s somewhere I belong. But I was always very proud of being Czech and I didn’t change my name. I use the háček on my surname and I didn’t become Charlie, but somehow I clicked. I actually fit very well into the American academia and into American medicine – for whatever reason. That could be entirely coincidental. But I always felt very well and I was lucky enough that my work was going well, so I actually was not being taken as an alien. I was one of them from almost the beginning and that was very good.”
Karel believes the Czech Republic is ‘progressing magnificently’
“I am very positive about the future there. I am, because you see the change. Before, when one crossed the border [into Czechoslovakia], because I was always flying to Munich, I rented a car and you crossed the border and it was like somebody hitting you with a two-by-four. It was horrible. And now you see how festive it is. You don’t see any more of these Vietnamese flea markets. It’s festive; it’s beautiful. The villages are in order; houses are in order; you see the gigantic fields; all crops are harvested. There is nothing wrong with it. So I am very optimistic about the Czech Republic.
“I am particularly happy about young people, because young people today, the Czechs and the Slovaks, are just like anybody else. They are indistinguishable. They are proud, they are prosperous, they carry [themselves] well, they behave well, they are learning the languages, and it’s a pleasure to meet with them. They still remain cultural and I’m very happy. The saddest is my own generation because lots of people complain and they feel how great we had it in America while they really suffered and saved the nation. But the young people are wonderful. And look how they are doing! Look at the number of young Czech scientists worldwide in absolutely leading laboratories, and they do very well. They get offers to stay. And now, already, there are Americans who are going to work in the sciences and live in Prague. It was a dream. Now, I say, when Germans start coming to be waiters in Prague, then the Czech Republic has arrived.”
Have you seen any yet?
“Yes I did. Not very many, but I did. And the numbers are growing.”
Category: New York City, Oral History