Friday, January 4, 2013

Vladimir Krajina: World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer - Jan Drabek

Few people live lives that would make for an interesting book, and not all those who have lived such interesting lives are well known. Vladimir Krajina, a Czech botanist who worked at the University of British Columbia in the second half of the 20th century, fits this description. Biographer Jan Drabek, himself a Czech √©migr√© living in Vancouver, in  Vladimir Krajina: World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer, has written an insightful and informative biography that will be of interest to both WWII and ecology enthusiasts alike.

Drabek’s biography is essentially two distinct parts, reflecting the dichotomy of Krajina’s life. The first follows Krajina’s life in Czechoslovakia as a member of the Resistance until his escape to London in 1948. The second part documents Krajina’s life in British Columbia where he worked as professor and researcher at the University of British Columbia’s botany department. What is similar in both halves of Krajina’s life is how important was the work he was doing, and how unknown it was – and still is – to the majority of people. For myself, I was aware of Krajina’s botanical and ecological work through my university studies, but had no idea of his experiences in WWII and knew little of the events in Czechoslovakia during this time.

Krajina was a student at Charles University in Prague when Czechosolvakia was a fledgling democracy after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and before occupation by first Nazi Germany and then as a Communist country under the influence of the Soviet Union. Drabek hypothesizes it was this time living in an independent democratic country that Krajina felt strongly about, and when it was threatened by Nazi invasion he was compelled to play a role in protecting it.

By 1939 the Nazis had closed all of the universities in Czechoslovakia, and Krajina was no longer a botany professor but full time Resistance member. Krajina became a leading member in a group pivotal in the encoding, sending and receiving of intelligence-related information between Czechoslovakia and its exiled government in London. For example, it was Krajina’s group which relayed the intelligence that the Wehrmacht was planning to attack British-controlled Egypt and the Suez Canal, allowing some two months’ warning for precautions to be taken.

Drabek explains that Krajina was an ideal person for this kind of work because of “his enormous self-discipline and strict observance of rules of conspiracy”. However, he also intimates that Krajina was like the character in the Disney film “Ferdinand the Bull”:

…a magnificent animal chosen for the bullfighting ring. But Ferdinand prefers to smell the flowers instead of fighting and, eventually…is returned to his pasture…sitting there still, under his cork tree, quietly smelling his flowers. The flower-loving Resistance fighter may have been a thorn in the Germans’ side, but unlike many of his companions, he refused to carry a gun.” 

At one point in the war the author’s father had given Krajina a book of flower drawings done by Czech artist Josef Manes. When Krajina had to flee the Gestapo, he returned the book for safekeeping; the author’s father noticed that even during this dangerous time Krajina had made corrections in pencil to the names for each flower.

Between 1939 and 1943 Krajina was regularly on the run from the Gestapo, hiding in sympathizers’ homes, meeting intelligence contacts in the streets after dark, and somehow managing to send upwards of 6000 radio messages each year. However, by early 1943 Krajina was captured, interrogated and sent to Terezin concentration camp until the end of the war. Post-1945 Czechoslovakia saw political struggles as various ideologies fought for supremacy. According to Drabek, Krajina again felt compelled to be active politically instead of returning full-time to his botany work because it was important to him that Czechoslovakia return to the democratic nation it was before the Nazi occupation. Instead, Krajina found himself arrested and threatened with execution by the new Communist government unless he agreed to cooperate. Again showing his principles and courage, Krajina arranged to escape by skiing across the border to the US military in Germany. Once finally made his way to England he arranged for the escape of his wife and two children.

Reunited, the Krajina family made its way to Vancouver, British Columbia. Working in the botany department at the University of British Columbia, Krajina made his mark with his ecological approach to forest research and the influence this had on the province’s forestry industry. This perspective was unique at the time, as in a report Krajina wrote for a major forest company in 1954 he said: 

“Forest resources are natural resources which should not be exploited by the methods used in mining, where the products cannot be regenerated. Forest resources should be kept for a sustained yield through all generations.” 

Krajina went further, saying that virgin forests were rapidly disappearing without thorough analysis, and that a representative portion of them should be saved intact for future study, an important consideration when areas needed to be reforested after logging. This was the basis of Krajina’s research into what were later termed biogeoclimatic zones, 14 of which he identified for British Columbia and which are still referred to today. By the late 1960s the provincial government was discussing setting up ecological reserves under the models proposed by Krajina, passing the Ecological Reserve Act in 1971. For the rest of his life Krajina was an ardent campaigner for establishment of reserves to protect sensitive ecosystems, always having to argue for conservation over immediate logging / economic opportunities in the short term. In 1973 an ecological reserve was established on Haida Gwaii bearing Krajina’s name, its literature describing it as “an outdoor museum and laboratory available for botanical, wildlife and geographical fishery”.

Drabek’s biography is enriched by the closeness of the author to its subject. His father worked closely with Krajina during WWII in the Resistance movement, and the author was the same age as Krajina’s daughter and even attended the same school. Drabek has written a detailed portrayal of a man who spent his life engaged in principled struggles for democracy and the environment, from which and from whom much can learned and applied today.

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