Granddaughter of Nobel-prize winner on growing up with his legacy in mixed-race family under Communism
Granddaughter of Nobel-prize winner on growing up with his legacy in mixed-race family under Communism
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Neela Winkelmann-Heyrovská never had the chance to meet her Nobel-prize winning chemist grandfather – Jaroslav Heyrovský died in 1967 and she was born two years later. But she had to live with his legacy her whole life – which, she says, was both a blessing and a curse. To complicate matters further, she grew up in a mixed-race family in Czechoslovakia, the daughter of a Czech father and Indian mother, at a time when such things were extremely uncommon.
On 27 October 1959, Professor Jaroslav Heyrovský received a telegram from Stockholm which read "Swedish Academy of Science today decided to award you for your polarographic method the 1959 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Letter follows - Rudberg, Secretary." It was one day before the 41st anniversary of Czechoslovak Independence Day.
To this day, Heyrovský remains the only Czechoslovak scientist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry – or indeed any of the sciences. The only other Czech to win a Nobel Prize to date is Jaroslav Seifert, who got it for Literature in 1984.
Heyrovský’s granddaughter Neela was unusual when she was growing up, not just because she was the direct descendant of the first, and at the time only, Czech Nobel Prize winner ever, but also in that she was mixed-race, in a period when there were very few foreigners in Czechoslovakia.
In this deeply personal interview, we spoke about her grandfather, her family, and her unique experience of growing up in such unusual circumstances under Communism during the normalization period of the 1970s and 1980s. She began by telling me about how the Communist regime treated her grandfather.
“My grandfather was idolised a lot – the regime latched onto him and I think they used him. Because after the Communists took over they destroyed everything – morals, culture, the structure and integrity of society – and they destroyed science.
“Science is a field which lives off freedom – you need freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. You need to travel, go to foreign conferences, publish in foreign journals, you need to educate yourself, broaden your mind.
“And we were closed in a prison here, literally, everybody. We couldn’t travel, you couldn’t get foreign scientific literature, you couldn’t publish in foreign magazines and journals, you couldn’t go to foreign congresses or organise international congresses with Western participation in this country – so science was basically lame.
“I couldn’t understand why the regime would use my grandfather as a poster figure and at the same time not allow a young generation of Nobel Prize winners to develop“
“And in this situation, they would always pull out my grandfather and show off with him, like, “See who we’ve got”. The Communist regime, which persecuted intellectuals and chased hundreds of thousands of intelligent people into exile, which didn’t allow scientists to work in their fields for political reasons, this same regime would every now and then pull out my grandfather and celebrate 50 years of that or 20 years since the Nobel Prize, and there would be programmes on TV using my grandfather as a mascot basically.
“I just couldn’t understand why the regime would use my grandfather as a poster figure and at the same time not allow a young generation of Nobel Prize winners to develop. When I was small, I grew up feeling that this was totally unjust and unfair. But my grandfather wasn’t there anymore so I couldn’t ask him how he felt.
“But then I read his diary and I realised he was so much into science that he used it to be able to survive even under difficult conditions. I know that in 1948 when the Communists took over, he was frantic, he wanted to get out of the country – he knew that this was going to be the end of scientific freedom.
“He was trying to leave with his family – my father and aunt and grandmother – they were trying to go to the US because he had an invitation to lecture there, he had been promised a salary and housing and everything for I don’t know how long. But the Communist Party wouldn’t let him go. So my grandfather was there in 1948, starting in February or March, he was trying to go to the ministries and ask for travel permits and he was not getting them.
“So he realised he had to stay. And then he tried to make the best of it. He went into counter-attack – he went to the Communists once again, and this time he said, ‘I want my own institute. If you don’t want to let me go, I want to build my own institute.’
“And pretty soon he managed to get his way. The Communists realised that this was going to be some kind of a deal – we won’t let you travel or leave the country, but we will let you build an institute and then you will stay here and be our prize scientist.
“So he had his own institute pretty soon after the Communist takeover, by 1950 or 1951.”
Was he able to do any real science? Did he make any new discoveries?
“Well, there is no alternative history, but the truth is he just continued working on his discovery from 1922 until he passed away. There was nothing revolutionary or new.
“But I just wonder, had they not closed him in the cage, had he been able to develop his talents, had he been able to go to the US and start his career there, who knows what else he might have achieved. But his wings were cut.
“The Communists let him travel on what I would consider a propaganda trip to China, where he met Mao Zedong. What kind of science did the Chinese have in the 1950s? Zero. So when I meet my grandfather, I shall ask him, ‘Why did you go to China to shake hands with Mao Zedong, who was killing millions of his own citizens?’”
“And then they let him – or maybe made, I don’t know – go to Egypt. What kind of scientific Mecca was Egypt in the 1950s? So my grandfather went there with his scientific lectures, shaking hands with the leftist leader of Egypt, the dictator Nasser.
“How humiliating is that? He should have been lecturing at American universities, in Princeton or Yale, he should have been teaching scores of graduate students and publishing in big journals, and instead he was left to do this.
“So I just wonder whether and how he suffered. I can’t ask him anymore.”
He got the Nobel Prize in 1959 – presumably he wasn’t allowed to travel to receive it?
“He was allowed – he was 69 years old at that time and he was frail. But the Communists of course didn’t let the whole family travel.
“My aunt, my grandfather’s daughter, she got a special dress made for the occasion, and my father would have liked to go, but they didn’t let them travel. Only my grandfather and my grandmother were allowed to go and receive the prize.”
Were both your parents also scientists?
“Yes, in a very similar field or even the same field – physical chemistry, both of them. They are both graduates of Cambridge University where they met in the lab.
“In the second half of the ‘60s there was a bit of freedom coming in, the Prague Spring was approaching – it was possible for young people of that generation to go abroad to study, so my father was one of those, he went to do his PhD in Cambridge and that’s where he met my mum.”
Was it love at first sight?
“I don’t know, but the story that’s been told to us at home is that the professor walked into the lab where my father was working one day and he brought in my mother and he said, “This is Ms. Rajalakshmee, won’t your please take care of her?” And so my father did.”
“Yes, forever [laughs]. My parents got married in 1968, in Prague, six days before the Soviet invasion – so I’m a child of the Soviet occupation.”
Were they already planning to stay here or were they going to get married and go somewhere else?
“Well, the trouble with my father was that he was such an unbelievable patriot, so he didn’t want to leave. I think my mother must have been scared out of her wits because she woke up on that day at 2am and there were tanks rolling down the street where they were living.
“When I meet my grandfather, I shall ask him, ‘Why did you go to China to shake hands with Mao Zedong, who was killing millions of his own citizens?“
“It must have been awfully scary for her because she didn’t know the language, she knew nobody, she was just freshly married to this guy whose language she didn’t speak, and now there are tanks coming in and she didn’t have any idea what was happening. Ok, she wasn’t stupid, but she had no idea how to gauge the situation or what to do.
“And sadly enough, most of my father’s relatives of his age group – everybody who was bright and had a university education – they all emigrated.
“But he felt indebted to his own father and to the family tradition, he felt like he had to stay here and defend the family tradition against all odds.
“It was a bit self-sacrificial I think. I think it was not a good decision but anyway, he did it.”
What kind of experience did he have under Communism – was it difficult for him to work?
“I think my father struggled with it all of his life.
“I was very moved to find out in the 1990s that my father was actually among the courageous students in this country who stood up immediately after the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, when Khrushchev had his famous de-Stalinization speech, where he for the first time said that the personality cult of Stalin was wrong.
“This was like a breath of fresh air for the entire Eastern Bloc because the early ‘50s were the dark ages here – there were a lot of horrible things going on.
“And my father and a group of seven or eight friends got together in the spring of 1956 and wrote an extremely bold and courageous political manifesto asking for democracy in the country, the dropping of censorship, an end to playing the Soviet anthem on the radio every day, the release of political prisoners, and what I find especially brave, the punishment of the judges who were sentencing innocent people in political show trials. They were asking for political pluralism, competition of different political opinions, freedom of travel and press.
“They called a large assembly to the main hall of the natural sciences faculty in Albertov and some 800 students and faculty staff came. And of course the state security was present and they started following my father and all the main student leaders. My father was the one who stood up in front of the assembly and read out the manifesto so he drew attention.
“He was then interrogated by the secret police, they were trying to win him over to collaborate, they forbade him from travelling, even to East Germany, so he was taken off student trips.
“I mean it was nothing terrible, but I saw his file in the security services archive – long after 1989 we got access to the files. So I was able to read through his file and it was a thick thing. They followed him for 30 years.
“There were agents who were posted in front of the house and they were noting down the precise minute he was getting out of the house, what he was wearing, how he was hopping on his scooter, where he was going, whom he was meeting in which hotel.”
Did you ever notice these policemen outside your house?
“My parents were always extremely careful. My father got the message from the regime that this was not going to be tolerated, so he went into inner resistance after that.
“Your question about whether my father suffered during the regime – well, he was extremely careful not to compromise himself with the regime. He was trying to keep us all away from whatever was political, and we were living in a sort of internal emigration because my parents spoke English at home.”
Wow! So your mum never learnt Czech?
“My mother must have been scared out of her wits because she woke up at 2am and there were tanks rolling down the street“
“Well, she did take some Czech lessons with a Mrs. Havlíčková when we were very small, but she never really learnt fluent Czech because we only spoke English at home. My parents didn’t want us to get indoctrinated so we had no TV and we didn’t buy any newspapers. We grew up listening to the BBC.
“It was difficult in the ‘70s because the radio frequencies were jammed – it was on shortwave radio but most of the frequencies were jammed by the Soviet Union, so there were horrible noises broadcast at the same wavelength, like machine guns shooting and whistling and howling, so you couldn’t just tune into the frequency, your ears wouldn’t take it.
“But there were times in the mornings and in the evenings when the ether was clear, and those were the times when my parents would turn up the radio at 6 in the morning or 10 in the evening and we would listen to the BBC News. We also tuned into the Voice of America – same conditions, early mornings and evenings, my parents were glued to the radio.
“I remember it was really moving when we were small – sometimes in the afternoons there were these BBC comedy shows, I remember one in particular called The Men from the Ministry, and they would laugh their heads off. They would sit there with their heads together with their ears glued to the transistor radio and they would laugh and repeat the jokes. As kids we were just like, “Who is Crawley? Why are they laughing about Crawley?” I must have been four or five years old.
“So my parents were trying to keep us in an island of sanity inside of the crazy Communist prison that we were living in.”
Did your mum ever try to convince your dad to leave?
“I can imagine that she might have when we were really small, but I guess she then gave up later on, because my father was really fixated on living here and protecting something. I don’t really know if it was worth protecting so much – I think we might have been happier growing up in the West, in a free society.
“My parents were trying to keep us in an island of sanity inside of the crazy Communist prison that we were living in“
“What we struggled with as children was not only having the famous name, but moreover my brothers and I are brown-skinned, which was a double problem, because everybody would stare. So we were extremely self-conscious, a) because of the name and b) because of our looks.
“There were no foreigners here, this was a very white country, there were no dark-skinned people, no people of colour. The only people of colour who were native here were the Roma, the minority that’s always been scapegoated and ill-treated and always at the bottom of the social ladder. So we would be taken for Roma oftentimes – not that I would mind, but there was a racism behind it.
“So there was always this strange animosity towards us, but it could flip over to the complete opposite: adoration – like, “Oh, the Heyrovsky family!” So it was very difficult growing up here and I believe growing up in the West would have made life much easier for me and my brothers.”
Is that really true – in the whole time you were growing up, you never saw another person with darker skin?
“No, of course I did – I saw Roma people and since I was a kid I knew they were being horribly discriminated against and hated by the majority. There were racist slurs and I was called those slurs as well.
“And then later on, in the early 80s, the Vietnamese started coming in as guest workers, so there were racist slurs for them too. And every now and then there were some black students, from Angola typically, where the socialist revolution was trying to take over several former colonies and the Soviets were supporting left-wing governments and dictators in Africa.
“So every now and then there was a black person in the street, but there were fingers pointed from all directions at those people – it must have been very difficult for black people here in those days. I did see black people in the street, but it was like once a month or something. Basically this was an all-white society.”
Do you think it’s better now?
“It is better, definitely. The fall of the Iron Curtain was a great relief in this aspect – people of colour started coming in as well and it’s better now. I’m really pleased to see that in the generation of young adults today this is not really an issue. Also thanks to internet culture, social media and pop culture, where people of colour are stars and icons – a lot of it has been lessened and softened.
“But I still feel it in my generation and in the older generations – there is a dormant racism here and sometimes it shows in full light that it is there. I suffer when I hear about people being attacked for their skin colour, be it Roma, foreigners, or Czechs of dark skin.
“I thought about keeping a diary of my little racist encounters nowadays. The most recent one was on a tram in the centre of Prague and there were some young schoolchildren there, like ten or twelve years old. This little girl stuck out her finger and was pointing at me and talking about me to her friends aloud in Czech as ‘the black woman’ (černoška).”
Did you respond?
“I was surprised how much it hurt me, I remembered my childhood and it brought back memories. I took a few tram stops to think how to react, and then finally a seat became free next to that girl so I went and sat next to her.
“We grew up extremely poor, despite our famous family name“
“I pulled down my Covid mask and I told her, ‘Do you know what little girl? I can understand you, I understand every word you are saying and I am Czech. I just happen to have a different skin colour but you’d better be careful, it doesn’t feel nice when you say such things, and there are many Czechs who have different skin colours, there are not only white Czechs so please be careful not to hurt their feelings.’”
“And then I put my mask back on – I was shaken inside, it cost me so much energy to defend myself in this way. And it was moving because the girl went completely silent and she was shocked and ashamed, I could see it, she practically shrivelled in her seat.
“And then as the kids were getting off with the lady who was with them, the lady came over to me and tapped my shoulder and said, ‘I thank you so much, she is not my daughter but I’m glad you told her this.’ And she got off the tram with the kids and went.
“It was moving but this happens to me quite often – every three weeks or so I have some kind of little racist encounter in Prague even today, and even with the youngest generation.”
What was it like at school – did you struggle to make friends or was that not a problem?
“When I was a kid everything was fine and easy – I was a lively kid and I had no problems.
“Every three weeks or so I have some kind of little racist encounter in Prague even today“
“But at some point when the boys in my class hit puberty there was this really ugly two years, sixth and seventh grade in primary school, where I had to go through two years of racist bullying – and it was hell. I thought I wouldn’t stand it.
“And I was not the only one – my brother who is one year younger also had it bad. He was quite small and he also got beaten up all the time at school and there was surely racism behind it as well.”
How did the teachers treat you? Were they in awe of your name?
“We all get some gifts in our lives – but it was a double-edged sword. Everybody who had some kind of education knew the name, so you came to school and the teachers knew you were a Heyrovský.
“But there were two ways teachers dealt with it – either they would not dare give us bad grades, or they would try to fry us to prove there was something that we don’t know. So it was hard – I had to study to be good and of course I had the pressure from home.
“Oftentimes I got my grades for nothing, but other times I had to fight a lot. I remember some teachers who really would have loved to give me a bad grade and I was like, “No! You’re not going to get me!” So it was not easy.”
Are your parents still around?
“My father passed away in 2017, but my mother is still alive. She moved to the United States after my father passed away. She spent a lot of her life here but perhaps it’s only because she kept her Indian passport, so she was allowed to travel. Since I was about 10, she would pack her bags every springtime and go to the US. I think she just needed a breather and some fresh air to be able to survive life under Communism with four kids and a patriotic husband [laughs].”
What kind of family did your mother come from in India? Did they approve of your parents’ marriage?
“My mother also comes from a highly intellectual family, but of the Indian type, so it’s a very patriarchal, male-dominated society.
“Unfortunately, there is a tradition of arranged marriages, even in the Brahmin caste – the priests and the learned people – the caste that my mother comes from. So her mother was married off to a brilliant mathematician but he was an evil person and he left the family.
“So my grandmother was left alone with five daughters which was a very hard fate for an Indian woman in the 1940s, 1950s. They were basically vulnerable women. The only way to make themselves a decent living and any economic future was through studying and going abroad. So she made sure all her daughters went to university – that was the ticket out of poverty and a difficult future.
“My mother was the first to get a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, and all her sisters took a similar journey but they all went to the United States. All of them except one went to grad school in the US, and they took their mother with them in the ‘70s.
“So that’s why my mother started going to the United States, because her sisters and her mother lived first in New York and then they spread out. So I had a grandma in New York in the ‘70s – that was very unusual during Communism. I never saw her, but she was in New York.”
How was the fact that your mother married a Czech man viewed by your grandmother?
“I think she was OK with it – I don’t think there was ever any problem, because after her failed marriage, if she had any prejudice she probably would have dropped it by then.
“But from the Indian traditional point of view my mother is an outcast, because she married out of her caste. Indian chauvinism would look down on anyone who married out of the Brahmin caste, and she married not only out of the Brahmin caste, but a non-Indian.
“There is distant family in India of course, and my mother has returned to India – I think she’s fine with everyone there, but she feels most comfortable in the US, I think. She has a green card and she’s living there now.”
Did you pursue a science degree as well?
“Yes, I studied molecular biology in Prague, and then when I was in the middle of my studies, the revolution came, so I knew I needed to go abroad, I knew I needed to go to grad school in the West. I chose the US, not only because my grandma and aunts and cousins were there, but also because the top universities in the field are there.
“So I applied to the top schools that would give me a full scholarship to be able to live without any financial support from my parents, because we grew up extremely poor, despite our famous family name.
“We had a very low income, even relative to the Czech standard at the time. My father never attempted to gain any position, he avoided any career advancement, he declined everything – so he was basically feeding a family of six with the salary of one person.”
Why did he do that?
“I’m trying to contribute my little bit to broadening the horizons of the people around me by showing, ‘Look, I’m a bit different, but I am also Czech.”
“He didn’t want to collaborate with the regime, and moreover, any position of importance would have required him to join the party, and after what happened to him as a student he didn’t want to get entangled with the regime at all.
“So I went to the States on a scholarship, I got into Cornell so I got a PhD in New York and spent four glorious years in Manhattan. And then I decided that I wouldn’t stay in science anymore.”
Maybe it’s a cliché question but do you feel Czech or Indian or something else?
“I’m really grateful to my parents for bringing us up in English – since we were kids we knew what the world was about because we grew up in a different culture, in an internal exile culture surrounded by the Czech Communist indoctrination.
“My parents brought us up knowing we were citizens of the world. They told us, “You are not Czechoslovak citizens, you are citizens of the world, and you should be aware of that.” So that was really brilliant. And also my parents told us, if someone asks you who you are or where you’re from, tell them you are Indo-Czechs.
“So I grew up knowing that I have two identities. Then I went to India and realised I don’t really have an Indian identity – I had just cherry-picked the things I liked from India, but the Indian culture is more distant to me than I thought. I got a lot of it from my mother, but I am definitely more Czech than Indian.
“Every time I would come back to Prague, I would put on a CD of Dvořák’s symphonies and I would cry“
“But also, growing up in this international family, I have a distance in many aspects from Czech society – I wish it were more tolerant, more open, more multicultural. That’s something that I like and I look back in nostalgia on the old days, during the monarchy times when there was a lot of multiculturalism, especially in Prague, and you can see it in the architecture. This was a multilingual, multicultural society.
“So I am Czech, but in the nostalgic sense of the old days, the First Republic and even the monarchy times, when this was a rich and vibrant multicultural society.”
What brought you back here from the US?
“After living in Manhattan for four years, I married into Germany, and lived in the beautiful Bavarian countryside at the foothill of the Alps. And I was so homesick – I was homesick for the Czech countryside. You know, there is an adjective that describes the Czech countryside which I only know in Czech – ‘líbezný’. It’s like lovely, pretty, heartwarming – but I don’t know an exact translation, it’s just líbezný.
“I just love the countryside, and I love Antonín Dvořák. And I remember every time I would come back to visit my parents in Prague, we would cross the border and I would put on a CD of Dvořák’s symphonies and I would cry. Because it’s such beautiful music and it’s so emotional, and to me it’s linked to the Czech society that I know from history and culture and from my father’s family lore. My grandfather’s father was a rector of Charles University and he was a friend of Masaryk and they were friends with all the artists and politicians of the time of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the beginning of the republic.
“So there’s all this huge baggage that I have of this idealised past and I like it. It probably sounds too bombastic, but I wish I could contribute to creating a little bit of that old multicultural world that I believe was here 100 or maybe 80 years ago and that I miss here today. And when I cross the border into this country, this door opens again and I have this feeling that I am connected to that.
“I belong here – this city speaks to me and it is beautiful. As long as I am here, I’m trying to be this multicultural person who speaks Czech, this bridge between Czech society and culture and the other cultures that I have had the privilege to have had access to. So I’m trying to contribute my little bit to broadening the horizons of the people around me by showing, ‘Look, I am also Czech – I’m a bit different, but I am Czech.”
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