My Century And My Many Lives, by Frank Munk
Frank Munk, my grandfather, wrote this autobiography to record his memories
from 1901 onwards. This history and its postscript are available on our family website in his
memory as they tell a complete story of the 20th century. These memoirs may be referenced as
long as proper attribution is made; our family retains ownership and copyright. We have one
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© Copyright 1993, 1994, The Munk/Ragen Families
In May of 1931, I
received a letter that changed my life. It was from the Paris office of the
Rockefeller Foundation and read as follows: "I am authorized to offer you a
Research Fellowship for study in the United States for a period beginning
approximately October 1st, 1931. The Fellowship entitles you to a monthly
stipend of $150 per month, an allowance of $50 per month for your dependents,
and, in addition, necessary travel and tuition expenses insofar as they are
specifically authorized in advance."
The letter was a
surprise. I recalled that my former Professor, Josef Macek, had asked me some
time ago if I would like to go to the USA, but I did not give any thought to his
enquiry. I accepted the offer right away, in spite of knowing that it would
stop, or at least delay, what looked like a very promising career.
I had just been
named a fellow of the Masaryk Academy and head of its Institute of Business
Research. I was named a member of the Social Research Institute of the Ministry
of Welfare and a lecturer at the School of Political Science. I was serving on
the Permanent Committee on Economic Planning and one of the editors of "Sociálni
Problémy" (a journal of the social sciences) as well as "Hospodárská Politika"
(Economic Policy). Much of this followed the 1928 publication, by a
government-owned publishing company, of my book, "The New Economy -- a Study of
the Second Industrial Revolution." I knew the fellowship would interfere with
all these activities, but I thought it would be worth it. It also interfered
with some other plans: I was one of the people who planned the construction of a
modern settlement on the outskirts of Prague called Baba which was an exhibition
of Bauhaus-style housing. The construction of our own house began just about
when we were to leave.
Nadia was just then
working as secretary to the daughter of President Masaryk, Alice Masaryk,
herself President of the Czechoslovak Red Cross. Nadia's job was to assist in
her social welfare activities. Alice Masaryk was kind enough to get free passage
to America for Nadia by having her appointed as inspector of emigration, to
check the facilities provided by the shipping line to immigrants going to the
We crossed the
ocean on M.S. Saint Louis of the Hamburg-Amerika Line. We boarded at Hamburg on
September 22, 1931, arriving in New York on September 30. This was of course the
time of the Great Depression and the world economy was in a sorry state. We got
a taste of it as the ship docked in Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland. The
headlines read England Abandons Gold Standard. It was a symbol of
England's economic decline just as the present decline of the dollar (I am
writing in 1992) symbolizes the decline of our economic power.
We met some other
Rockefeller Fellows on board the Saint Louis: two Poles, Zenon Wachlowski and
Jose Chalasinski and their wives, Baer, a Hungarian, and Max Ascoli and wife,
from Italy. They all returned to Europe except Ascoli, who divorced his
redheaded Italian wife, married an American heiress, and became a wealthy
publisher of magazines. I happily kept my Czech wife.
New York impressed
me more than it now impresses me. I believe it was much more livable at that
time. I was impressed by its modernity, its standard of living, its advanced
technology, but also negatively by the contrast between wealth and poverty. The
streets were full of people selling apples and all kinds of other things, or
simply begging. Unemployment stood at about 25 per cent, and President Hoover
was very unpopular. So was prohibition. It was proof of self-respect, and of
good connections, to serve hard liquor whenever you had visitors at home--a
custom I thoroughly disliked since I was not accustomed to alcohol (and still am
We only stayed long
enough in New York to get oriented and to plan my project. This I did by
conferring with Dr. Meredith Givens at the Social Science Research Center, as
advised by the Rockefeller Foundation. I originally wanted to stay in New York.
However, Dr. Givens suggested I stay one year at Harvard. I had of course heard
of Harvard before coming, but I had only a faint idea of its stature, so I asked
Givens if it would be worthwhile to study at an institution so far out in the
countryside. He assured me that Harvard was not second rate. I reluctantly
accepted his suggestion and we left for Cambridge.
In Cambridge, we
found a room at a house in 50 Wendell Street, owned by a relative of the then
American Ambassador to Germany. Most of my classes were at the recently
completed Graduate School of Business Administration, across Charles River from
the main campus, where I also was given office space. I was very surprised when
I attended my first class that instruction at the school was based primarily on
the case method instead of general lectures. I had never encountered anything
similar in Europe. It occurred to me that it must be an extension of teaching at
law schools, based on Anglo-Saxon common law as distinct from Roman Law, in use
all over continental Europe, and, of course, also in Quebec. I must confess,
Roman Law still impresses me as clearer and cleaner.
Fortunately we knew
some people in Boston. I had met Edward Filene, owner of the famous department
store, in Prague when he was visiting the Prague International Fair, of which I
was one of the directors. I took him around Prague and spent much time with him
at the request of the American Commercial Attaché and found him very agreeable
and knowledgeable. He not only invited us to his home (he was single), but also
introduced us to some prominent Bostonians, including the widow of a governor of
Massachusetts. To us these glimpses of upper-class New Englanders were a real
However, our first
visit after arriving in Cambridge was not to historic Boston, but to lonely
Walden Pond, described so lovingly by Thoreau. We met many people in the towns
surrounding Boston and I became very fond of New England and New Englanders. At
the end of the academic year the Rockefeller Foundation encouraged us to see
more of the United States. I spent much of the summer session at the University
of Chicago. I knew some of the people at the University from Europe, especially
Professor Louis Brownlow, Director of the Public Administration Clearing House,
with whom I reestablished relations after my second coming to the United States.
Nadia left in the
middle of summer for Houston to help her sister Vera Scott, who expected her
first child. I used the time to see something of the West, which always
attracted me. I took the train to Denver, and then hitchhiked all over Colorado,
especially over its Rockies. I found the mountains fascinating, both the high
peaks with snow and glaciers and the abandoned mining towns, now mere ghosts of
themselves. I even tried my hand at gold panning. The creeks above Boulder,
Colorado, were full of unemployed men panning gold from the creek beds. Gold
certainly was there, I saw it in their pans, so I stayed for several days in
their camp, ate their food, and enjoyed myself. Then back to Chicago on the
luxury train, the Columbine.
I also took other
trips from the Windy City. I ought to call it the Hot City, on some days the
only place to be was up to the neck in Lake Michigan. One of my trips was to
Kenosha, Wisconsin, specifically to meet the liberal Governor, Philip La
We spent the rest
of the summer at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. We made
the trip as far as San Francisco in the car of our Polish friends, the
Wachlowskis, I mostly in the car's rumble seat, eating the ever-present sand. It
was however a most interesting trip, across the Bad Lands of South Dakota,
Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and across the Sierra Nevada to the Bay Area--with me
still in the rumble seat. From San Francisco we went with one of the many people
who made a lean living by taking people in their old cars, with them living and
sleeping in the car. Such was life during the Depression. When we got to L.A.,
we got a nice apartment in Santa Monica, only to have to give it up when I
learned that I was due at USC and not, as I assumed, at UCLA.
Los Angeles in 1932
was idyllic compared to what it is today, the streets bordered by palms with the
charm of the missions still visible. I bought a second-hand car, my first,
learned driving, and before the onset of autumn we set out to drive East.
Everything went fine until we got close to San Antonio, Texas. We had an
accident and ended up in the ditch. I was unhurt, but Nadia had a bad cut on her
leg. We were taken to Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio, where they kept us for
a couple of days. the local Czech community learned about the accident from the
papers and came to visit us at the hospital. A woman said: "Oh, you are doing so
well; we were planning to give you a nice funeral." She seemed truly
We stayed for a
while in Houston with Arthur and Vera Scott and then left by train for New York.
The Rockefeller Foundation had extended my fellowship for another year and I
spent it mainly at Columbia University. My attendance was more irregular than at
Harvard. I was very eager to talk to many academic and practical experts and
also spent some time in Washington, D.C.
Washington, I made an effort to get better acquainted with the U.S. government.
I visited many departments and individuals and was fortunate enough to get
guidance, and use working space, at the Brookings Institution. Unfortunately all
my notes got lost in Prague during the war. One conversation I vividly remember
was with Justice Louis Brandeis at the Supreme Court. His family came originally
reached its nadir in the spring of 1933, just as we were about to return to
Europe. A day after our ship departed from New York President Roosevelt closed
all banks to avoid a general run on them, and the New Deal started in earnest.
We did not go
directly back to Prague, the Rockefeller Foundation having extended my grant for
three more months so I could complete my research in Berlin. It was an
extraordinary time in Germany, coming only about two months after Hitler assumed
total power (or seized it) in the Reich. Berlin was plastered with posters
proclaiming "Give me five years and you will not recognize Germany" -- a
prediction that was ultimately fulfilled, but not the way it was intended.
I went to Germany
mainly to consult Professor Julius Hirsch at the Handelshochschule in order to
complete my work on the cost of distribution. It was published in book form
under the title "Problem of Distribution and Distribution Costs" (in Czech) in
Prague in 1935. It served as the dissertation for my doctorate in 1936.
Professor Hirsch was just about to leave Germany, like so many other prominent
Jews, and to start teaching in Denmark. The contrast between the sophisticated
intellectual and artistic life of Berlin and the sound of marching S.A. and S.S.
detachments of the Nazi party could not have been more dramatic. Berlin was
still a great metropolis, but there were signs of impending Armageddon
everywhere. I must say I should have seen them more clearly than I did,
believing that it still was a long way from Berlin to Prague. I was wrong.
Anyway, we returned
home in late spring and moved directly into our newly finished villa on the hill
called Baba. Prague looked very normal and peaceful after Berlin.
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