Historian Milan Hauner on his own fascinating family history

13-11-2008

Milan Hauner is a leading Czech historian whose area of expertise is World War II, Germany and Czech-German relations. He himself was born during the war, in 1940, to a Czech-German couple who were both deaf. In this edition of Panorama, Professor Hauner, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, outlines aspects of his own, fascinating family history – starting with his grandfather Vilém Julius Hauner, a leading military historian, translator and anti-Nazi journalist.

“When Heydrich came to this country he was arrested, because he maintained close links with the Czech military, then of course in forced retirement, but still organised in the underground. Because the Czech military formed the first line of resistance, of opposition, to Nazi occupation.

“Obviously he had many friends among them and remained in contact. So he was sent to then the worst concentration camp in the Nazi system, Mauthausen in Austria.

“The official entry into the todesbuch [deaths record] of Mauthausen is auf der Flucht erschossen, which means shot while attempting to escape. Which is absolute nonsense; he was 64 years old and they smashed his glasses during interrogation, he couldn’t see, he would be the last person to attempt to run against the electric wire.

“So they got rid of him, as I learnt later, because he stood in the way. They needed to clear barrack number 13 for the incoming Russian prisoners of war. The commander crossed off all people who couldn’t work in the quarry as superfluous – so he died.

“My uncle, his son, died after the attempt on Heydrich’s life, shot during martial law here in Prague, in early June, 1942.”

As well as killing his grandfather and uncle, the Nazis brought Milan Hauner’s parents together – but for one of their many heinous policies, the couple might never have married.

“My mother was German, but not Sudeten German. She lived in the centre of Germany, in Thueringen. She escaped…my father saved her life because she wanted to kill herself due to the brutal Nazi…dealing with people who were handicapped because of some illness or health problem.

“She was earmarked for sterilisation. In little print in the verdict…this is a chapter which very few people know, that these laws would not be applied to people who were married to foreigners.

“So my mother, who knew my father – my father was very much in love with her, but she resisted his temptations [laughs]…Then she asked him, would you like to marry me? He said, yes, instantly, but she said, you must come tomorrow – otherwise something terrible will happen! So he came and saved her.

“It was quite incredible. Even this cruel history had its romance. And thanks to that I’m here, and so is my brother. Their handicap probably saved my life, because otherwise my parents would have been active in the political underground, and executed just like my grandfather or my uncle.”

Professor Hauner’s father Vilém Bohumír Hauner, who lived from 1903 to 1982, was one of Czechoslovakia’s leading bookbinders.

“He was a master binder. His speciality was engraving and he worked with gold a lot, real gold, very thin folios which he used for doing titles and for larger pictures and images, in leather. That was his speciality.

“He was brilliant. He was one of the best Czech bookbinders. But after the Communist takeover his profession, as it was for many of his colleagues, was dying, because there was no market for hand-bound books.

Finally, going back in time somewhat, Milan Hauner’s grandmother Jitka Haunerová-Staňková was also a remarkable person. She played a leading role in the establishment of a school for deaf and dumb children in Prague’s Smíchov district, which opened its doors in 1917. Fate had led to her becoming an expert in the field.

“My father was her first child, and when he lost his hearing due to meningitis she devoted her fortune and her time to inspecting the most advanced method for teaching deaf children, in France and in Germany.

“She imported these methods and introduced them. As a member of the board she made sure that the Czech teachers adopted the most advanced methods.

“So Czech deaf children were lucky to have this education, where they used a combined method which consisted of the usual way of using sign language, which is natural – of course my parents used that too.

“But in addition, in order to communicate with the world of normal people with normal hearing, they learned how to speak. The blurred language became clearer through systematic phonetic education. They were also taught lip-reading. That was our preferred method at home, and they were very good at that.

“When my father, who knew languages and was the chairman of the Czechoslovak deaf union, was invited to the United States, in 1928 I think it was, and introduced to the president of the Gallaudet College, which was the first university for deaf people in the US, in Washington, he was surprised that their methods were based exclusively – and they still are nowadays – on sign language.

“So American deaf people don’t know how to communicate with people with normal hearing, unless they can use sign language. They are not taught lip-reading, they are not thought how to speak.

“My father was quite astonished, because that cuts out…you know, they live in their own enclosure, in their own small world, without needing contact – which is not good I think, it’s not natural.”

13-11-2008