How milling saved a life

by Emily Wilson
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There's an old saying about being in the right place at the right time. In the case of Juan O. Hajnal, being in the right profession, at the right place, at the right time, saved his life more than once.

Juan was born in 1919 in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), in the heart of Europe. (He was born "Jan," but his first name was altered to "Juan" after he moved to Argentina many years later.) As a young man, Juan dreamed of becoming a lawyer. His father, who owned a business that sold flour and grain, dreamt of owning and operating a mill with his son.

Sensing that difficult times might lie ahead, Juan's father advised him to choose a career that would allow him to work anywhere in the world. "This was remarkable intuition for someone whose ancestors had lived in the same land for over 300 years," said Roberto Hajnal, Juan's son.

Juan decided to follow his father's advice. After graduating from high school in his hometown of Zilina, he studied milling at the Royal Technological School of Budapest in Hungary, then completed a fellowship in the laboratories of the Royal Institute of Flour and Grain in Budapest.

To further his studies, Juan moved to Paris in 1937 to attend the French School of Milling. He graduated a year later, a member of the school's fourteenth class. The milling degree he received, along with the personal relationships he developed with colleagues, professors and friends, would leave an everlasting imprint on his life. Professor Henri Nuret, the school's director, remained a life-long friend and supporter.

After graduating from the French Milling School, Juan went to work for Prokop, a milling machinery manufacturer in Pardubice, Czechoslovakia, which is still operating today. He worked in the technical department, developing projects for South America. Many years later, while living in Argentina, Juan was Prokop's representative for almost 30 years.

In March 1939, the German army occupied Czechoslovakia. Juan decided to abandon his native country and, with help from Professor Nuret, returned to Paris to work in a research laboratory. Later, he was recommended by Professor Nuret for a position as an engineer in the mill of the Dourdan Co-op, in Dourdan, France. "This was a situation where his profession proved extremely valuable, since it allowed him to obtain a work permit, without which he would not have been able to remain as a foreigner in France," Roberto said.

In September 1939, France went to war with Germany. Juan enlisted in the French Army as a volunteer in a Czechoslovakian unit. He fought on the front line, as an infantry officer, until France fell to Germany in June 1940. Even during those difficult times, Juan remained in close contact with friends from the French Milling School and with the school's alumni association. With the assistance of a classmate living in Switzerland, Alfredo Bernardoni, Juan was able to send mail to his family in Czechoslovakia.

After the armistice of June 1940, Juan became a prisoner of war and was confined to a labor camp for foreigners. "Because he was Jewish, this would have constituted the first step toward deportation to a concentration camp, where he would most probably have encountered death," Roberto said.

Once again, Juan's friends and profession intervened. This time, help came from the relatives of a classmate and friend, Andre Martel, who was a prisoner in Germany at the time.

The Martel family owned a flour mill in Aix-en Provence, in the south of France, and Victor Martel, Andre's father, was president of the Milling Engineer's Federation of Southern France. After becoming aware of Juan's situation, Mr. Martel requested that Juan be transferred out of the labor camp to fill a milling engineer position sponsored by the labor union.

"Mr. Martel indicated that it was crucial for this position to be filled in order to ensure availability of food to the population during those hard times when wheat was rationed and some old, previously closed mills needed to be reopened," Roberto said. "Once again, my father's profession as a milling engineer saved him from a probable death."

Juan worked with Mr. Martel for several months, until the local political situation became extremely dangerous with the arrival of the Gestapo in Aix-en Provence. Not wanting to endanger the safety of the Martel family, Juan moved to Grans, a small French town of 500 residents and no police officers, to work in an old mill that had been inactive for many years. Juan and the mill's owner, Mr. Fournier, worked to bring it back to full operation.

Although his profession had enabled him to survive and live independently, Juan, a 22-year-old Jewish foreigner in France, realized that his life was at great risk. In 1941, he joined the French Resistance. To minimize the risk of being caught, Juan began working the night shift at the mill, and often hid weapons in bags of bran.

As the situation in France continued to worsen, and as news from his family in Czechoslovakia grew more ominous, Juan decided that it was unsafe to remain in Europe. But where would he go, and how would he get there?

Again, the milling profession was instrumental in providing a safe haven. While working for Prokop in Czechoslovakia, Juan often corresponded with the company's representative in Argentina, Walter Hatton, who also owned a mill in Buenos Aires. In June 1941, Juan wrote to Mr. Hatton, asking him to provide a work contract so that Juan could apply for an immigration visa to Argentina.

"Mr. Hatton was extremely understanding of the situation and undertook great personal efforts to send him a work contract," according to Roberto.

But it was difficult to procure a visa and obtain an exit permit from France in 1942. After many months of correspondence, Juan's determination and perseverance paid off and he finally obtained the required visa to enter Argentina. However, he was unable to complete all the paperwork required to exit France.

In the meantime, Mr. Fournier, the owner of the mill in Grans, discovered the weapons that Juan had hidden in the mill. Juan suspected Mr. Fournier was a German collaborator. "This potentially life-threatening situation became instead the starting point of an extremely risky escape," Roberto said.

In reality, Mr. Fournier was a prominent leader of the French Resistance, and he alerted Juan that the Gestapo was searching for him. With the help of Mr. Fournier's friends on the Spanish and French sides of the border, Juan escaped to Spain by walking across the Pyrenees mountains.

He arrived in Spain with no money and no documents. But once again, Juan was aided by his connections with the French Milling School. Juan's old friend and mentor in France, Professor Nuret, had written to another graduate of the school, Jose Damian Muruzabal, and asked him to help the young man. Juan stayed briefly at Mr. Muruzabal's home in Bilbao, then in September 1942 traveled by boat to Buenos Aires where Mr. Hatton awaited him with a job as a milling engineer. At the time, Juan was only 23 years old.

Juan deeply loved his adopted country, Argentina, his son said. He married, and had three children and nine grandchildren. He started his own business, Juan O. Hajnal S.A., a manufacturer of machinery for the milling and grain industry, which is currently continued by his son Roberto.

During his life, Juan remained in touch with his friends from the French Milling School. In 1988, he traveled to France to celebrate with his classmates their 50-year reunion; one final meeting of this group took place in 1990.

Juan O. Hajnal died in 1994, in Buenos Aires, a partner with his son and others in a small flour mill — just like his father had once dreamt.

The information for this story was provided by Roberto Hajnal, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and his sister, Lily Lang, who lives in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.