Pavel Novak was born in Striabo on 7 September 1918, just weeks before the official founding of the modern state of Czechoslovakia* (later Czech Republic).
His Station Master father Rudolf, born 4 September 1880 in Hostomice (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), was a Czech and German-speaking civil engineer, who had studied at Prague’s German Technical University; Pavel’s housewife mother, born 1 January 1884 in Spalene Porici, was a German-speaker. His Novak grandfather, a ‘small trader’ and ‘liberal Jew’, headed a local Jewish community.
From age 4-14/15, Pavel lived in Plzen (Pilsen), fortuitously learning English at school, then from 1935 studied in Prague, ultimately at the Czech Technical University. He recalled that author Thomas Mann and his daughter came to Prague following problems in Germany, but by 1938 Hitler impacted on Czechoslovakia too. Rudolf was prematurely pensioned and depressed, Pavel anxious to complete his studies and flee the country, aided by Rudolf who queued for permits/visas on his behalf. Mother Elza cried.
Despite being briefly arrested in Benthuizen, Netherlands, Pavel Novak arrived at Liverpool Street Station in April 1939, where a Jewish man directed him to a German Jewish hostel in Wimbledon. Pavel tried to help his family, but older sister Kathe Popper had married a dentist in 1934 and would not leave, nor part with her daughter Edith on Nicholas Winton’s Kindertransports. In Worthing, he had friends from the 1937 International Friendship Club event, stayed at a Czech Refugee Trust Fund hostel, and registered as a University of London external student, studying in Brighton until 1940, when aliens had to move from coastal areas, and he joined a joinery firm in Sheffield.
When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 Pavel volunteered for the Czechoslovak Army then based in Britain, but having gained a degree in civil engineering and some experience, was allowed instead to accept an Assistant Lectureship at Nottingham University. War service comprised the Home Guard plus some intelligence work e.g. interrogating German POWs not debriefed in France.
At the university, liberal (later secular) Pavel met student Elizabeth Maurer from an orthodox Viennese Jewish family; they married in 1943, and after graduating she became a teacher. The Czechoslovak authorities duly appealed for technically qualified people to be repatriated, so Pavel flew home on the first plane to Prague in June 1945. Elizabeth joined him in September and taught English.
Working at the Hydraulic Research Centre in Prague, Pavel had very mixed feelings. He had lost 13 members of his immediate family. Both parents were transported in 1942 to Terezin then Sobibor, his sister, husband and child to Terezin-Zamoz in 1941, and his father-in-law to Buchenwald.* He found only one uncle and a step-grandmother who had survived Terezin. Great friend Peter Stiasny had been executed. Two items had, however, been saved for him: porcelain, and a ball of wool containing gold coins which he passed on to his family.
There was ‘a political atmosphere’, and he eventually joined the Communist Party. Two weeks before the February 1948 Communist coup, Pavel went to the USA on a 6-month scholarship, meeting Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk and actor Hugo Haas in Hollywood, but ‘Colorado was depressing.’ Dr Condon’s hospitality to a Communist in the McCarthy caused difficulties under the 1938 House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In June 1948 Pavel went to London, where his cousin pleaded with him to remain.
Pavel, however, returned to Czechoslovakia. Unofficially he was Deputy Director of the institute, but mistrust was widespread in 1951-2. ‘The atmosphere changed radically’ with ‘political dramas, including the Slansky trials’ (targeting Jewish Communists); Pavel knew two of the accused, Loebel and Frejka. Close friends met quietly, and concentrated on their children. Invited by e.g. UNESCO, he was not allowed to travel for 8 years due to his background, and demoted.
His wife, though, could visit family in Vienna. A philologist, she translated books and periodicals, but was dismissed from her job in 1966-7, then taught at Charles University. 1967-8 saw ‘Prague Spring’ liberalisation crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks at Moscow’s behest.** Still holding a 4-day exit permit for a holiday in Austria, Pavel ‘felt torn.’ ‘Ten days of deliberation’ followed; he had his work, son Michael was working in a Worthing hospital, Pavel’s wife was ‘anxious to leave’, daughter Susanna was not.
Finally, they went to Vienna, then to Pavel’s cousin Seidler in Newcastle, where he had a textile business. Elizabeth taught school children German in a ‘working class district’, later changing to adult education. Pavel wanted to feel needed and useful; by 1970 he was Professor of Hydraulic Engineering, teaching at Newcastle University 15 years. He was ‘very proud’ to become a British citizen in 1973, and valued being in a free and stable country.
Looking back, Pavel Novak commented that he had ‘felt caged’ in Communist Czechoslovakia, and ‘never knew if he would return home, so always took a toothbrush to work.’ Subsequently, however, he has been ‘politically rehabilitated’ and honoured for his work, awarded: The highest medal of the Czech Academy of Science Hydraulic Structures, Medal of the Institute of Civil Engineers (USA) - the 1st non-Aryan recipient, Honorary member of the International Institute of Hydraulic Research - 1 of only 3 Hon. members, Hon. Citizenship of Striabo, where he was born.
His message was that his may seem an extraordinary life, but as Capek posited in Ordinary Life, there is no such thing as an ordinary life – Pavel agreed.