At the International Geological Congress in Copenhagen in 1960, I gave a paper on the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary in Mexico. The discussion then was not what had caused the extinction of so many animals and plants, but the rather esoteric question as to whether the ‘Danian Stage’ belonged to the Cretaceous or the Tertiary. Some members of the geological community were beginning to become aware that something dramatic had taken place at the end of the Cretaceous, and there were arguments about which rocks and fossils belonged to the Cretaceous and which to the Tertiary. The ‘Danian Stage’ had been described as the uppermost (youngest) strata of the Cretaceous. The concept of the Danian Stage of earth history is based on a very peculiar suite of rocks exposed in a quarry near Faxe and on the coast of the Danish island of Seeland at a place called Stevens Klint, just south of Copenhagen. If you are a paleontologist, the quarry is one of the strangest places you can imagine. It doesn’t take long to figure out that it is a coral reef, but a very strange one, where fossils that are exceedingly rare elsewhere, such as crabs, are common. There are lots of corals, but they don’t look like the ones you see on a coral reef today. These strange deposits sit on typical chalk that closely resembles that of the region around Paris. Separating the two deposits is an enigmatic, very thin layer of clay full of fish remains, the ‘Fiskeler’. Even Charles Lyell had visited these localities and found them both fascinating and enigmatic.
A few years before the Congress a solution to part of the riddle had been found. Dredging off the coast or Norway had brought up corals like those found at Faxe, and it had been discovered that there is a wholly different set of coral reefs unlike those most of us know. These are what we now call ‘deep-water coral reefs.’ They grow in water depths of several hundred to a thousand meters. Unlike the corals of shallow water reefs, the coral animals of these deep-water reefs do not need sunlight.
The argument at the Congress was whether these deposits belonged to the Cretaceous period, named for the chalk deposits of France and Britain, or to the younger Tertiary Epoch. The Soviet view point, represented by Aleksandr Leonidovich Yanshin, was that the deposits were limestone, therefore they belonged to the Cretaceous. I was one of those arguing that the fossil foraminifera below the Fiskeler were like those of the Cretaceous, but those in the Danian deposits were like those of the Tertiary Velasco formation in Mexico. It sounds silly today, but it was the kind of argument geologists had in those days.
There was a young Czech micropaleontologist attending the Congress, Pavel Čepek, accompanying his Professor, Vladimir Pokornỳ. Pavel, Aleksandr Yanshin and I were together on a field trip after the Congress to look at Cretaceous deposits in southern Sweden. One evening Pavel was seated between Yanshin and myself. I didn’t speak Russian, Yanshin didn’t speak English, but Pavel understood both, so he became the interpreter for a dinner-long argument. Yanshin and I had a great time, but Pavel was so busy translating he didn’t get much to eat.
On the field trip Pavel and I were looking at the chalk and I was telling him about how useful the nannofossils were in determining the age of rocks in the Alps. It turned out that Pavel had been looking at the nannofossils in the chalk deposits of Czechoslovakia. His thesis advisor, a very prominent micropaleontologist specializing in study of ostracods, Vladimir Pokorny, was on the field trip too. and inquired whether, if things could be worked out, I might be able to serve as an outside reviewer on Pavel’s doctoral thesis. None of us knew what might be involved in having an American serve as reviewer on a Ph.D. thesis in Communist Czechoslovakia.
Young Americans may never have heard about the ‘Iron Curtain’ that separated the USSR and it satellite countries of eastern Europe from the west. The term was coined by Winston Churchill in a talk given at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946. Sir Winston said:
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an "iron curtain" has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.”
The ‘iron curtain’ he referred to is a sheet of iron that can be lowered to separate the stage from the audience area of many theaters in case of fire.
The ‘iron curtain’ sealed off eastern Europe from westerners. It was virtually impossible to go there as a tourist. You had to be on some sort of official business, and even then travel was very restricted. The ‘iron curtain’ finally fell away in 1989, but for over 40 years eastern Europe and the USSR were ‘off limits’ to westerners.
In the spring of 1962 , I got an invitation to come to Prague during the summer to look at Pavel’s work. The arrangement was the usual one for working with colleagues on the other side of the iron curtain; you paid for your trip to get there, and they paid your expenses while there. Since I was going to be in Europe anyway, it was an easy decision to make. I arrived in Prague in mid-August, coming on the train from Vienna. The border crossing into Czechoslovakia was interesting; there was a thorough examination of my passport and visa, and a look in the luggage. However, all this was not nearly so interesting as when leaving a week later. Pavel greeted me at the railway station in Prague.
Prague is one of the world’s great cities. Essentially untouched by the war, everything in Prague was intact, but, like Vienna a decade earlier, it was a grey city. To get a feeling what these cities were like then, look at the film “The Third Man”, filmed in Vienna in late 1940s . After the Peace Treaty with Austria was signed in 1956, Vienna blossomed back into color with the baroque houses mostly white or yellow. But the Communist government of Czechoslovakia did not believe in either repair or colorful building facades, and nothing had been done since before the war to bring them back to their original state..Grey buildings and red banners with communist slogans printed in yellow, just like in the eastern sector of Vienna in the 1950s . I remember that no one, except Pavel, seemed to be smiling.
My hotel was on Václavské náměsti (Wenceslas Square) in the heart of the new city. Václavské náměstí is actually a rectangle a couple of hundred meters long, sloping up a hill and crowned by the Czech National Museum at the upper end. A dour clerk at the hotel took my passport, we put my luggage in the room, and went for a walk through the city. Prague lies astride a curve in the Vltava (Moldau) River, and that evening we walked down to the Charles Bridge. On the west and south sides of the river are high hills, that on the west, Hradčany, is capped by the magnificent Prague Castle with a curving unbroken baroque facade over half a kilometer long overlooking the city. The Vltava (Moldau) is a tributary of the Labe (Elbe). The rivers join about 40 km north of Prague and then flow north through sandstone canyons to Dresden and finally meet the sea north of Hamburg. Smetana’s tone poem Má Vlast (My Country) contains the famous section known in English as “The Moldau” and is a beautiful musical description of the countryside and Prague.
Pavel was head of the Micropaleontology Section of the Czech Academy of Sciences. The offices and laboratory were on the upper floors of a building in the street called Spálená only a few blocks from Václavské náměsti. When we went there the next day, I found it to be an island of warmth and cheerfulness in the sea of grey.
But before going any further, I have to explain that the Czech people are very special. In order to understand the Czech mentality, you have to read The Good Soldier Švejk (or Schweik in many translations) by Jaroslav Hašek, published in 1923. For me the best English translation is the Samizdat version available at www.zenny.com . Švejk is a Czech conscript serving in the Austrian Army during World War I. He carries out orders to the letter, with disastrous results. You are never quite sure whether Švejk is an imbecile, as he claims, or a genius at devising ways to frustrate authority.
I got a little introduction to daily life in Prague when we went out to get food for lunch. To make a purchase in a food store you needed first to stand in line to look and see what was available and how much it cost. Then you would get a slip of paper to take to the cashier, where you again stood in line. The cashier takes your money, and then give you another slip of paper. After standing in line again you would give the slip of paper to the clerk who would then give you what you had purchased, if, of course, it had not sold out in the meantime. This was the routine for making purchases of any kind. There was an exception. If you had a foreign currency or a special voucher you could go to ‘Tuzex’ stores where you could buy western goods without standing in lines. But Tuzex stores did not accept Czech currency.
Two highlights of that first visit I remember very clearly were the garlic bread at a cellar restaurant, U Tomáše, and the Laterna Magica. The Czechs make garlic bread from day-old black bread which has dried out a bit. It is toasted by frying in a pan with a little vegetable oil, and the spread with a layer of garlic about half a centimeter thick and sprinkled with salt. Guaranteed to keep witches, vampires, and most anyone who hasn’t eaten it, at bay.
The Laterna Magica is one of the most remarkable theaters in the world. Performances are a combination of film and live acting or singing. We saw Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann in a stunning performance. Tales of Hoffmann is about Hoffmann’s three love affairs, all of which turned out badly. The first woman he fell in love with was actually a mechanical doll who could dance ballet very well until she needed to have her spring would up again. The second was an opera singer dying of consumption and being cared for by a certain Dr. Miracle. Needless to say, she dies. The third was a Venetian beauty, Giulietta, who had the unusual habit of singing duets with her reflection in the water. He brother, Schlemiel had no reflection in mirrors. Altogether a bad family to get mixed up with. The Venetian scenes at the Laterna Magica were amazing, with film of the city, floating gondolas on stage, some of the singing live and some on film.
On August 20th we made a trip into the countryside to see the chalk deposits he was studying. I had no idea that such beautiful chalks were found in Central Europe. The modern form of chalk is strictly a deep -sea deposit today, so seeing it in the middle of Europe set us both thinking abut how the ocean plankton could have penetrated so far into the seas covering Europe. We made plans to see if we could keep on working together.
I left by train, and this time the border crossing into Austria was more complex. The train stopped in a village just before the border. Czech citizens traveling to this last stop had to have a special pass. I was alone in my compartment. Then the train pulled forward into an area surrounded by fences, and a thorough inspection took place. Border guards with mirrors on poles looked beneath the cars for stowaways, and dogs sniffed about. After about an hour, the train was underway again and soon stopped in an Austrian town, where lots of cheerful travelers climbed aboard.
After I returned to the University of Illinois, the fall was uneventful, but in the spring a friend in the Chemistry Department called and said that they had a postdoctoral fellow from Czechoslovakia. They knew I had been there, and thought that perhaps we might like to meet. So I met Jiři Jonas. Those first meetings with colleagues from the Soviet bloc were always a bit difficult because one never knew what the other person’s political bent might be. However, after a few minutes together we found we had lots to talk about, and were soon laughing about all the rules and regulations one followed in Czechoslovakia. If you hadn’t experienced life in the Communist bloc first hand, it was very difficult to imagine. We became very good friends.
I made another trip to Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1963. There was a lot of news. Pavel had divorced and remarried. His new wife, Jiřina, was a delight, always cheerful and bright. We continued to work on Cretaceous nannofossils at the office in Spálená, and this time all of Pavel’s staff gave me warm welcome.
We made a longer field trip, partly for collecting rocks, but mostly for sightseeing. We visited Karlštejn, a magnificent medieval castle built by Charles IV. Then we took off on a trip through southern Bohemia and to Moravia where we finally found the little museum in the Augustinian Monastery in Brno devoted to Gregor Mendel. It was in the gardens of the Monastery that Mendel, working with different strains of sweet peas, discovered the rules by which traits are passed from one generation to another. His work laid the foundation for the modern science of genetics. In those days there were very few visitors to the little Museum, and I was able to see his notebooks and even tried on Mendel’s eyeglasses.
Mendel was anathema to Soviet agricultural biologists, who were led by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, the biologist in charge of Soviet agriculture.. Lysenko believed in the ideas of Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, and thought that changes in plant species were brought about through hybridization and grafting, and that traits thus acquired could be passed on the offspring. This fitted in well with a Communist ideology fostered by Joseph Stalin and his circle: that all people were created equal and their differences as adults were purely a product of the environment in which they lived. This meant that living under socialism would eventually result in a human population free of bourgeois tendencies. Mendelian ideas of heredity were heretical and anathema to the Communist Party. Lysenko was the symbol of ideologically correct ‘science.’ Visiting the Museum in the monastery in Brno was a sign of disrespect to Communist orthodoxy.
On the way back to Prague we found a field of corn. Pavel had never tasted roasted ears of corn before, so we stopped and decided to ‘borrow’ a few ears from the field. We got caught by the farmers, who asked what we were doing. Pavel explained that I was an American and wanted to show him how we eat corn in America. The farmer’s couldn’t seem to stop laughing. Then one of them opened an ear of corn for us. No kernels, just a cob. They were faithfully raising the corn from seed that state had provided following Lysenko’s formulas. The farmers were doing exactly as they were told by their government, even though the result was no food. Good Soldier Švejks at work again.
The very next year Lysenko was out of a job due to massive agricultural failures in the Soviet Union, and Mendel was honored again as a Czechoslovak hero. Communist ideological pseudoscience was replaced by real science based on observations, research, and testing of hypotheses by experiment. It would be nice if that were the end of the story, but ideologically correct ‘science’ has reappeared in, of all places, the United States, often masquerading as religion or economic necessity. Surveys indicate that about 30 % of the US population believes that the sun orbits the Earth, and only slightly over half believe in evolution, and even fewer believe in the ‘Big Bang’ origin of the Universe. The replacement of rational thinking by ideology is manifest in the current politicization of ‘global warming’. And we even had our own Lysenko, Philip Cooney, originally a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, was named Chief of Staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. He edited the reports on climate coming from NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency to remove references to global warming and climate change. It turned out that Cooney was a lawyer with a bachelor’s degree in economics and no scientific training. He was hired by Exxon-Mobil immediately after he was exposed and resigned.
In the Fall of 1963, Jiři Jonas was to return to Prague. He came to see me and told me he was very uncertain about his future life there. He had grown used to America and the freedom to pursue his research as he wanted, and didn’t know what life would be like when he returned. We made a plan. If he felt he absolutely had to get out, he would send me a letter, and it would contain a reference to a fence around a piece of property I owned near Urbana. The mention of the fence meant he was desperate to escape.
A month or so after he returned I got a letter from Jiři telling me how well he had been received back into his institute, that everything was going very well and that he was very happy to be back in his homeland. He was even going to be attending a conference in Vienna to present the results of his research in a couple of months. I breathed a sigh of relief until I got to the last line o the letter: “Have you been able to finish the fence that we worked on around your property?”
I called Herb Gutowsky, the Chemistry professor who had been Jiři’s advisor and host, and took the letter to his office and explained what it meant. He said “I have some contacts, I’ll see what can be done”. A couple of days later the local FBI agent came to my office and we discussed the matter. He complimented me on the subtle method of communication Jiři and I had used. He was passing on information to another agency.
However, I thought about what would happen if the US agencies didn’t act. I got out my maps of Austria and Switzerland and made a plan. I knew the border area between the two countries rather well from visits to friends who lived very close to the border. I figured that if worse came to worse, I could go to Vienna, find Jiři at the meeting, and drive him to near the border, let him cross over the mountains on his own, and pick him up on the Swiss side. I had friends in Switzerland who were well connected and I was sure we could arrange asylum there. The problem was I didn’t know how the timing would work out. Then I did something that scared me out of my wits.
I picked up the telephone and called a friend in Vienna and said that I had a friend in Czechoslovakia who needed to leave the country. He would be coming to Vienna soon. Would it be possible for him to meet my friend and put my friend up at his house for a few days if necessary, until I could get to Vienna. The response was instantaneous. “Austria is a neutral country, we don’t do things like that. How dare you call me and suggest such a thing.” After a couple more nasty comments he hung up.
I sat there stunned. It wasn’t exactly the response I expected from an old friend. It brought home to me the fact that aiding someone’s escape from one of the Soviet bloc countries was an exercise not to be taken lightly. I also learned that in matters like this you should never trust anyone. Fortunately I had not mentioned Jiři’s name nor which Conference might be involved. My Viennese friend would almost certainly have assumed that I was taking about a Czech geologist or paleontologist. He might even have thought it was Pavel. Fortunately, Pavel wasn’t headed to any conferences in Vienna that year.
A few days later the FBI agent walked into my office again to let me know that he had been told that things were moving along well.
In the spring of 1964, without warning, my office door opened, and there stood a smiling Jiři. “Hello Bill, I’m back”.
After the shock of my telephone call to Austria, I was pleased that all this had happened without anyone, not even my Department Head, knowing about it. Then a couple of months later I was at a cocktail party where a faculty member from another Department, someone I hardly knew, introduced herself and said, “Oh, you’re Bill Hay, the one who helped Jerry Jonas come back to the US.” I realized that someone had ‘let the cat out of the bag’ and this was not good news, because I was to be on my way back to Prague a couple of months later.