Miloš Krajný: The idea of doctors receiving gifts was funny in Canada

Dr. Miloš Krajný, photo: Ian Willoughby

Dr. Miloš Krajný is one of a number of people who have just received the Gratias Agit, the Czech Foreign Ministry’s award for those who have promoted the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. A highly successful expert on allergies and immunity in his professional life, he has also devoted a lot of energy to advancing Czech music in Canada, the country he has called home since 1968. Dr. Krajný was born in 1941 and when we spoke I first asked what, if any, were his recollections of the war.

Dr. Miloš Krajný,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I have two episodes from the war – maybe three.

“The first one I don’t know if I actually remember or I heard it from my parents.

“My parents woke me up and said, You have to see what the Germans did to us before they left – and you will never forget this in your life.”

“There was supposed to be bombing of my town, Kroměříž, which had some industry, and I might have been two, two and a half, three years old.

“And my parents forgot me on the second floor of the house and went to the cellar, where my mother apparently said, Where is Miloš?

“So my father ran up and brought me down. That’s probably something I have from my parents, because it was a big scare.

“And the second episode was when the Germans were pushed out they put gasoline on the castle – Kroměříž has a big castle, where Amadeus was filmed – and set the tower on fire.

“At about three o’clock in the morning my parents woke me up and said, You have to see what the Germans did to us before they left – and you will never forget this in your life.

Miloš Krajný,  Gratias agit 2019,  photo: Barbora Němcová
“And I have never forgotten that.”

Your father was a doctor also. Did he have to look after soldiers at that time?

“Yes. We were in our house in the basement or cellar and we had metal plates in front of the windows, so if there was some shooting it wouldn’t get through.

“It was a sort of unwritten signal that when somebody banged on the metal it was usually a soldier who was injured, from either side.

“My father would open the door and I would peek behind somebody to see blood coming out of a stretcher. And he had to attend.”

Do you remember anything of the Communist takeover in 1948? You would have been I guess six or seven years old.

“I don’t remember specifically, because at that age children are not interested in politics, but I heard from my parents that it wasn’t a very happy time.

“Because my parents actually had a visa to leave for Britain after the war.

“My mother had a friend who was a doctor and they had some kind of signals… because she was informing him where the Germans were during the war, so she would write something on a postcard and he would know – they had this special alphabet.

“At the last minute my parents decided not to emigrate, because of the grandparents. I think they regretted it all their lives.”

“He arranged a visa for the whole family. He said, It will not be good in Czechoslovakia because the Russians will come and take over.

“At the last minute my parents decided not to emigrate, because of the grandparents.

“I think they regretted it all their lives.”

You began studying medicine in Olomouc in the late 1950s. Did politics have much impact on your studies?

“Well, in 1958 I graduated from high school. I was second best in the class but I couldn’t get into medicine because I was from a bourgeois family.

“But my father did find some way through, with some patients, so I was admitted to university, four days before it started in September.

“Basically I didn’t have many problems, except for one professor who was a very high-ranking Communist and he probably knew about this, so I had a very hard time to pass his exams [laughs].

“Otherwise it was smooth.”

Did you have to attend lessons in Marxist ideology?

“Oh yes. The first year political economics and the second year Marxism-Leninism, which was very hard to study.

“Some professors would take it just like a sport. They wouldn’t really grill you on some questions, because obviously we didn’t study it. We hated it.

“The Communists had an informer across the way and they were writing down the number of people and at the end of the year the government said, You have to pay tax on these presents.”

“But some were very tough and you had to pass.”

I saw an earlier interview with you in which you said that some of the teachers you had in Olomouc were on a kind of Communist black list but still got to teach you.

“There were some professors who somehow stayed at the university despite their political differences with the party, because there weren’t enough good teachers.

“Some of them were even making political jokes during classes, which was risky. But they did and we loved them.”

What drew you to your field in medicine, which is allergology and immunology?

“When I was about five years old, my mother would get terrible cramps in her stomach. They would take her to the hospital and they didn’t know what to operate on – the stomach, the gall bladder.

“After two months my father said, You have an allergy to strawberries, because whenever you go to the garden and have strawberries, you have cramps.

“So as a child it stuck in my mind: an allergy – what is that? Some people don’t get sick and some do.

Dr. Miloš Krajný,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“As the oldest son I knew that I was destined to be a medical doctor, which I didn’t mind.

“And then allergy was my first choice.”

One thing that happens here in the Czech Republic still is that people give gifts to doctors. I presume that was even more in the Communist period?

“In the Communist period doctors had a very low salary and basically night calls were for free.

“It was part of medicine and medical care about patients.

“When I came to Canada it was unheard of. It was actually even funny, that as a doctor somebody would bring you half a dozen eggs, because it cost a few cents.

“But here it was part of it.

“I remember my father had a private practice and he would treat patients during the war for free, because they didn’t have any money.

“And these patients after the war, when the Communists took over, would bring a chicken or a pheasant.

“The Communists had an informer across the way and they were writing down the number of people and at the end of the year the government said, You have to pay tax on these presents. We don’t know what they brought you, but there was 55 people coming to your house so that’ll cost you 50,000 crowns.”

Hana Mašková,  photo: Author unkmown / National Museum on-line, CC BY 4.0, ©
“That was terrible, you know, because my father did it for free. He was a humanist.”

You have two brothers. What do they do?

“I was the oldest one. My younger brother went to study technical engineering in Brno.

“In ’68 I left to Canada and he left for Austria.

“He had a girlfriend at the time who was a very close friend to Hana Mašková, our figure skater.

“She didn’t want to go so my brother left alone and then he got married in Germany.

“And he’s actually here visiting me now – we’re meeting in two hours.

“My youngest brother studied piano, because he had perfect pitch.

“He was at AMU [Academy of Performing Arts] during the invasion and he was the only one who was left behind.

“In Toronto we had a Czech conductor, Karel Ančerl, and I wrote to him saying, My brother is studying piano – would you advise him to come to Canada, so I can help him out?

Karel Ančerl,  photo: YouTube
“Karel Ančerl wrote a letter right away, within a few days – and I didn’t know him – saying, Look, your brother has to finish the school in Prague, and if he’s good, he will be able to go abroad even under the Communists.

“And he was right, because I met my brother six years later in the States, when he was playing with the Prague Chamber Orchestra.”

What did you choose Canada to move to?

“One of my former professors from experimental physiology was working at the French university in Montreal.

“He advised me to ask for a postgraduate fellowship in experimental physiology.

“So he made me sort of think about Canada and he wrote to me about how to do the application form, that I should send a photo with very bright eyes because the professor liked it.

“And I got the position. So when the Russians came, the decision was made, basically.”

Did you see your parents again after that?

“Because I was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for not returning, my parents were told that they would never be allowed to visit me.

“But after the Helsinki conference it got a little bit loose and my mother visited me after 10 years.”

You are known for your great love of music. Where did that come from?

“I think it comes from my mother. My mother was a very good pianist, on the highest amateur level.

“I studied piano and violin. I still have my violin in Canada.

“I played in Montreal, because I found a Japanese colleague who played piano and we played Dvořák and Smetana.

“But I haven’t played since. Since he left to go back to Japan we haven’t played.

“We had very good parental education at home, with private music teachers.”

Ivan Počuch,  foto: ČT24
How did you get involved in putting on concerts in Toronto?

“In Montreal where I lived… I was 26 and I was more interested in light music, like Teena Marie.

“In Montreal I suddenly started to miss Czech classical music: the New World Symphony, Má vlast. My parents were sending me LPs.

“And when I moved to Toronto from Montreal a friend of mine asked me to join the Mozart Society, on the board.

“From that position I joined Music Toronto and other organisations, until I started to do community concerts for the Czech community.”

When you have run those concerts do you get a lot of interest, a lot of people coming?

“This was a big question before I started in 2001 – whether people would be interested.

“It went very well initially, we had lots of subscribers, because I mixed classical music and jazz.

“But in the last few years we do have a problem to attract young people.

“The older generation is getting sick or disappearing from this world – and we don’t have replacements.”

Miloš Krajný and Tomáš Petříček,  Gratias agit 2019,  photo: Barbora Němcová
But last year you organised a concert at the church of St. Wenceslas in Toronto marking the centenary of Czechoslovakia?

“Well, I organised one concert for the 90th anniversary and that was very successful. It was together with Petr Mikiska we had the Panocha Quartet and my brother.

“Last year I spoke to the consul general, Ivan Počuch, and he was very enthusiastic about the idea and helped us to organise it.

“We had the Zemlinsky Quartet with Slávka Vernerová on piano.

“Again a great success – a sell-out. So it was a very good celebration.”

You’ve had a very successful life in Canada. Have you ever considered what kind of life you would have had if you had stayed here?

“You know, that’s a question which came up in 1989 – whether it was actually smart to leave Czechoslovakia after the Russian invasion.

“The more and more I came here, I somehow came to the conclusion that the decision was correct.

“If I had stayed, I would of course have done allergology and I would be involved in some kind of music.

“It probably would be similar, especially after ’89, because we have freedom and everything is here – we can get everything, like in the West.”

Just before we started recording, we told me you were planning to have a class reunion on this visit back here to the Czech Republic.

“In Montreal I suddenly started to miss Czech classical music: the New World Symphony, Má vlast.”

“Yes, I graduated from high school in Kroměříž in 1958.

“We were meeting about every five years and last year, because it was a round anniversary, I said, Look, we’re getting older, maybe we should be meeting every year.

“And so it is – we’re meeting again.

“There were 28 in our class and now about 14 people meet, because about five are not among us and not everybody comes.

“But it’s usually very nostalgic and very nice.”