Had it not been for the wisdom of a fellow political prisoner who refused to approve his ordination as a Catholic priest, Josef Svoboda’s life might have taken a radically different course. It was 1957, and the cream of the Czechoslovak Catholic hierarchy had been locked up by the Stalinist regime in the notorious Leopoldov prison, a massive 17th-century Ottoman fortress in Slovakia. Josef Svoboda was serving time on trumped-up charges of treason, stripping feathers for duvets and repairing flour sacks alongside priests and pastors, bishops and deacons, seminarians and poets. The clerics had improvised a clandestine “university” inside the prison, and for two years, Josef took part in seminars on philosophy, liturgy, logic, scripture, theology, Church art history, eschatology, psychology and canon law.
Toward the end of 1957, a friend assured him he was ready to be ordained as a priest. A bishop, also an inmate, agreed to perform the rite. Protocol demanded that a church official from his diocese give his approval. And so the prisoners turned to the former rector of a seminary in that region. After a night of meditation in his cell, the monsignor returned with his verdict. “Nego. I decline the ordination,” he told the postulant’s disappointed sponsors. “Your candidate is a young man who has chosen the spiritual path in prison. When he is released, a whole new world will open up to him. I cannot be responsible for what happens then.”
His words were prophetic. Josef Svoboda, later professor emeritus of biology at the University of Toronto in Mississauga, who died in Burlington on Nov. 21 at the age of 93, was released from prison into a country that was still a repressive police state. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he immigrated to Canada where, over the course of 30 years of boots-on-the-ground research in the Arctic, he became one of the world’s leading experts in polar plant ecology, an important tool used to trace the impact of climate change on the delicate Arctic biosphere.
While working in Alexandra Fiord on Ellesmere Island, he initiated groundbreaking experiments to show that fresh vegetables could be grown to maturity during the brief Arctic summer. He was instrumental in establishing the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX) to co-ordinate the work of Arctic researchers studying the effects of global warming on complex tundra ecosystems. In 2019 Prof. Svoboda was named an officer of the Order of Canada.
“Josef had a wonderfully holistic sense of ecosystems and the connections among the components through time and space,” said Greg Henry, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a former student of Prof. Svoboda’s. “Remarkable achievements by a man who did not really understand what the Arctic was like until he arrived to conduct his PhD research on Devon Island in 1970.”
And although he was never ordained as a priest, he remained a devout Catholic layman who found, in the majestic silence of Canada’s vast polar deserts, a balance between his faith in God and his belief in science.
Josef Svoboda was born in Prague on July 16, 1929. For the first eight years of his life, he lived in Kralupy, a town on the Vltava River a few kilometres north of Prague. His mother, Elizabeth, was a milliner and seamstress; his father, Josef Sr., was an engine driver working for Czechoslovak Railways. Prof. Svoboda remembered how his father let him drive a small steam engine back and forth in the Kralupy marshalling yard. “I was also allowed to blow the whistle,” he wrote later. “That brands a boy’s soul for the rest of his life.”
In 1937, the family moved to Brno, where Josef joined the Boy Scouts, an organization that in Czechoslovakia drew inspiration, not from Lord Baden-Powell, but from the writings of the Anglo-Canadian naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton. The scouts spent almost all of their free time out of doors, but because of the Nazi occupation, their scouting activities had to remain covert. After the war, the Scouts were reconstituted, only to be banned again when the Communists took power in 1948. Josef also served for many years as an altar boy and took part in religious retreats that he later said had set his heart “on fire.”
Despite having proletarian roots, Josef’s twin passions, his Catholicism and scouting, caused serious difficulties when he sought to enter Brno’s Masaryk University in 1948. The newly formed political action committee vetting his application wanted to bar him, and it was only after his high-school biology teacher intervened that they reluctantly admitted him to the freshman year. In class, he stood up for the ideal of democratic pluralism, a concept that was anathema to communist dogma. A classmate took him aside and said, “Josef, nothing is going to change if we just keep talking. We have to do something.” And so he joined an underground resistance group as a courier.
He was arrested in September, 1949, convicted of treason, and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Two of his co-defendants were executed. For more than eight years, he was shunted around, doing hard time in some of the country’s most notorious maximum-security prisons and forced-labour camps. He was released on parole in 1958.
Instead of nursing a deep and crippling resentment, Josef decided he’d been phenomenally lucky. “I would not have changed [that prison experience] for anything,” he wrote in his autobiography, Wine from Raisins (Novalis, 2017). “Nowhere else would I have been able to receive such a thorough physical, moral and even professional formation – not in the army, not in university, not even in the seminary.”
He carried this positive attitude into civilian life, where his honesty about that past and his refusal to bear grudges opened doors that might otherwise have remained shut. He was employed for several years in the Brno zoo tending exotic animals, then found an outdoor job testing the water capacity of new wells in southern Moravia. At the same time, he was allowed to audit university courses in biology, though with the understanding that he would not be allowed to graduate.
In 1964 he married Kveta Krivkova, the sister of one of his fellow prisoners. (They separated in 1973, when she returned to Czechoslovakia.)
The following year, he landed a job with the Botanical Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Science. The man who hired him, Dr. Jan Kvet, had also been a Boy Scout, and together they researched wetland plant communities as part of Czechoslovakia’s contribution to the International Biological Project (IBP) established in 1964 to co-ordinate ecosystem ecology studies around the world.
After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Josef and his wife managed to get passports, and by December, they were in Canada as refugees. From then on his life accelerated rapidly. The University of Western Ontario in London recognized his Czech university credits and allowed him to complete his Bachelor of Science degree in biology in one year. Within a month of his graduation, he was in a Twin Otter winging his way with a team of students to the Truelove Lowland on Devon Island, 1,000 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, to begin his doctoral research for the University of Alberta. Three years later, he was offered a teaching position at the University of Toronto, where he remained on staff until his retirement in 1994.
Truelove Lowland is one of many polar “oases” in the High Arctic, areas marginally warm enough during the polar summer to support a sparse but unique variety of plant and animal life. For four summers Josef and his colleagues documented the vegetation on the terraced beach ridges left behind thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers and changing sea levels. The data they collected would serve as reference points to measure, as in a time-lapse movie, fluctuations in the Arctic’s ecosystems.
At the Truelove base camp, the doctoral student met a fellow political prisoner, Jiri Krupicka, who in the meantime had emigrated and become a respected mineralogist. They had both worked in the Jachymov uranium mines in north-east Bohemia. “We’re almost at home here, just like in the past!” Mr. Krupicka said. His old friend agreed. “The analogy of our work in the Arctic with the Jachymov gulag is not an exaggeration,” Prof. Svoboda wrote: “We slept on camp beds in unheated tunnel-shaped [structures] probably intended for cars or agricultural equipment. We ate from mess tins. Although we had enough food, it was usually canned. … We used sheltered oil drums for toilets. Our hands-on research was finicky drudgery done while kneeling or lying on frozen or at least very cold ground. … The bone and joint arthritis I have today was not all earned in Jachymov!”
Despite the discomforts, he was enthralled by his encounter with the Arctic. “The bare terrain of the High Arctic, almost free from higher plant life, is an open book of the Earth’s history,” Prof. Svoboda wrote. “From the Archean rocks, which are more than three billion years old, all the way to the Quaternary – the era of the last two to three million years – it is all in the palm of one’s hand. … I was ecstatic, for I was able to touch the memory of the Earth.”
His assistant one summer at the Truelove camp was a student from Hong Kong, Lewina Leung. He met her again in Edmonton as he was finishing his thesis. They became close, and eventually married and had two sons. The younger, Andrew, a talented musician and composer, died suddenly in 2004 at the age of 27 of cardiac arrest. Their elder son, Michael, lives in Whitehorse with his wife, Jennifer England, and two children, Misha and Sarah, and is unit head of conservation planning with the northern region of the Canadian Wildlife Service.
Prof. Svoboda’s love of the North and his boundless curiosity about the secrets it held would never wane, and he was able to pass that on to several generations of students, both here, and in his native Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Dr. Josef Elster, who is now professor at the Centre for Polar Ecology at the University of South Bohemia, spent several summers with Prof. Svoboda in the Sverdrup Pass on Ellesmere Island, and remembers the powerful sense of community that Josef was able to create among the diverse members of his team. Dr. Elster later established the Josef Svoboda Station for Arctic Research in Svalbard, Norway.
Near the end of his richly detailed autobiography, Prof. Svoboda ponders whether the polar deserts of the High Arctic have anything to offer humanity; “I believe the answer is yes,” he wrote, “though not in the conventional sense. Their silence penetrates to the bone. First there is the absence of disturbing noise. Then there is the powerful inner silence. … Polar deserts are rich in fresh air, high sky, the midnight sun in summer, and inspiration – all irreplaceable sources of personal renewal – but perhaps silence is their most remarkable gift.”