František Janouch, part 1: My work with Charter Foundation like wartime solidarity when dad was in concentration camps

František Janouch, photo: Petra Čechová

A nuclear scientist, František Janouch is perhaps best-known for the Charter 77 Foundation, which he set up in exile in Sweden to provide dissidents in his native Czechoslovakia with financial support and technical equipment in the latter years of the communist regime. In this the first half of a two-part interview, Mr. Janouch – who turned 85 last week – recalls the war, his years in the Communist Party, his forced emigration and the beginnings of the Charter 77 Foundation.

František Janouch,  photo: Petra Čechová
“My father was in a concentration camp from 1943. He was participating in the underground movement against the Nazis, as part of the larger Julius Fučík group.

“He was arrested in February 1943 and after three or four weeks of interrogation sent to Auschwitz and Birkenau.

“Then, we don’t know why, he was transferred, individually, to Mauthausen and then to a sub-camp of Mauthausen, Loibl Pass, which is south of Klagenfurt but on the territory of today’s Slovenia.

“He was working both in Auschitz and Loibl Pass as a nurse, an assistant to the SS doctors. This probably saved his life.

“So did the food parcels which my mother could send him twice or three times a month.

“That really helped not only him to survive but also a lot of other people that he could support with a little sugar or a piece of meat.

“After the war he didn’t work as a doctor. He was organising the Czech Medical Services, he was a deputy minister of health, and then he was the president of the Czechoslovak Red Cross.”

You must have been terrified when your father was taken away when you were at such a young age?

“Yes, of course. It was very difficult for us. I already understood it.

“I was 10, 11, 12 when I was arrested and I understood the dangers and what could happen.

“But we were supported. He had a large group of patients and they supported us with food – so my mother could send him those food parcels and so on.”

I understand your father was a member of the Communist Party. You also joined when you were a teenager. Was it your father’s politics or your experience of the war that influenced you to join the party?

“I thought that the Soviet Union and the Communist movement was a way to avoid the next war.”

“Both. There was the influence of my father, and it was a fact that Prague was liberated by the Soviet Army.

“So I thought that the Soviet Union and the Communist movement was a way to avoid the next war and the difficulties we were experiencing, both during and before the war.”

You studied in the USSR. What conditions did you find when you arrived in Russia?

“I went to Russia in 1949.

“I would like to say though that prior to this my father liked Russian culture and the Russian language and enrolled me in the Russian gymnazium [grammar school] in Prague.

“So for me it wasn’t like for the other students from Czechoslovakia, who had to learn the language.

“I could concentrate on my studying my specialty, which was theoretical physics.”

You were a nuclear scientist in the USSR. Were you at all involved in their weapons programmes?

“Absolutely not, of course. It was a classic academic education. We were absolutely not informed about the weapons programme.

“But, by the way, one of my good friends from the university became the head of the Soviet nuclear war programme: Academician Evgeny Avrorin.

“My wife and I met him in Moscow a couple of months ago.”

In 1970, two years after the start of the Soviet occupation, you were kicked out of the Communist Party. At that time, what was your view of communism?

Photo: Czech Television
“I was already very critical when I came from Russia.

“I spent in Russia twice five years. The first five years was for my studies at the university, in Leningrad.

“The second five years were in Moscow, for my PhD. And I was already very critical in Moscow.

“I had been in Leningrad too, but in Moscow I was very critical, especially after the Khrushchev disclosure of the crimes of the Communist Party and the regime.

“This was my first, so to speak, political involvement. I was elected chairman of the Czech students’ organisation in the years after 1956

“We had a very revolutionary programme – we wanted to change many things.

“When I came to Prague it was not a long time before I was again elected, and became the chairman of the Communist Party organisation in the Institute of Nuclear Research, with maybe 1,500 people or so.

“I was elected to that function in 1967, so in 1968 I was responsible for all the political… life, movement, at the institute.”

I was reading that you said that you didn’t emigrate, the Communists “emigrated” you. What exactly happened to you in the mid-1970s?

“First they took away my department. Then I was not allowed to travel. And then I was fired.

“It was very difficult. We were followed by the police. We discovered a microphone in the wall, recording our discussions. And so on.

“I was writing letters, protesting. For instance, I supported Sakharov for the Nobel Peace Prize, from Prague, in a letter to The Times. That was 1972, or 1973.

“I supported Sakharov for the Nobel Peace Prize, from Prague, in a letter to The Times.”

“I was interrogated many times. Many times picked up on the street for an interrogation lasting many hours.

“Finally they told me, You should perhaps use one of your invitations. I invitations had from several large institutions: CERN, and in Denmark.

“I understood that they wanted to get rid of me. Because if they had arrested me and put me on trial, it would make quite a noise and create a lot of troubles for them.

“So we left the country at the end of December 1973. We went to Copenhagen and spent a year at the Niels Bohr Institute, and then I was offered a professorship at the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, at the Nobel Institute for Physics.

“When I went there and started to work the Czechoslovak government expatriated me, took away my citizenship. So I had to ask for political asylum.

“We got it immediately and we got Swedish citizenship in four years, so we settled down in Sweden.”

Was it hard for you to accept, when you found yourself in Sweden without Czechoslovak citizenship, that you may never come home here? You didn’t know that the system would end.

“I was absolutely sure that the system would end. The question was whether it would happen in five or 10 or 20 years. But I was sure that the system had no future.

“And when I saw the increasing harassment and persecution of the people [in Czechoslovakia] I decided to help them.

“It was like people helped us when my father was in the camps.

“In fact, I started to do it before we went abroad.

“When I saw the increasing harassment and persecution of the people [in Czechoslovakia], I decided to help them.”

“I was collecting money from people who were relatively well off financially and was giving it to the first political prisoners, or to their families.

“The only person who at that time who was sentenced to a long term was Milan Hýbl. The others were given for 12 months or so, but he was sentenced to four and a half years.

“I promised his wife that even if I went abroad I would try to get her money.

“I would send money to my sister and she would give it to a friend of Mrs. Hýbl’s and they gave it to her.

“So the Charter 77 Foundation in fact started immediately after I left Czechoslovakia.”

In part two of this interview next Monday, František Janouch discusses the surprising way the Charter 77 Foundation got technical equipment into communist Czechoslovakia, his friendship with Václav Havel and where he feels the leaders of the Velvet Revolution went wrong.