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Exhibitions in the Robert Guttmann Gallery

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The Kolben Family Story

The Jewish Museum in Prague, Robert Guttmann Gallery, Prague 1, U Staré školy 3
From February 15 until April 15, 2007, open daily 9 a.m. – 6.00 p.m. except Saturdays and Jewish holidays

The beginnings of the Kolben family can be traced back to the end of the 18th century in the village of Strančice near Prague. According to the Familianten List of 1782, here lived the family of glazier David Kolben, who obtained a marriage permit in 1787. The family line continued with his sons Joachim and Moises, who took over the family business in 1827 and married Hanelin Löw. His son Joachim (1828 –1912) had a small business and married Františka Freund in 1862. Joachim and Františka’s house number was nine, and that was also the number of children they had.
The eldest and most famous of these was Emil Kolben (1862–1943), the electrotechnician, inventor and founder of what became the engineering company Českomoravská-Kolben-Daněk. His brother Jindřich (b. 1864) left for America when he was young and ran the Czech newspaper Svornost (Concord) in Chicago for many years. His brother Ludvík (1868–1927) rented estates in Petrovice and in Karolín. Emil’s closest brother was Alfred (1874– 1942), who was also an engineer and who worked with Emil initially on the construction of electrical machines. He later became the head of a technical school in Brno and also spent many years painting. Emil’s sisters Marie (1865–1937), Albína (1867–1937) and Kamila (1879– 1942) never married, and lived together in the house in Strančice.
Emil Kolben (1 November 1862, Strančice – 3 July 1943, Terezín) graduated with honours from the German Technical University in Prague in 1887. After a year’s work experience, he received a two-year Gerstner Travelling Scholarship from the Czech National Committee. The future inventor visited the German industrial centres, as well as Zurich, Paris and London. In April 1888 he arrived in New York, from where he set off on study trips across the States. It was not long before he gained employment in the construction office of the Edison Machine Works. He later worked directly with Thomas Edison in his laboratory in Orange, New Jersey, and ended up as his chief engineer and the head of the technical offices and the laboratory of the Edison General Electric Company in Schenectady, N. Y. While in America, he witnessed the rapid development of heavy-current technology and electric streetcar tracks, to which he significantly contributed. In 1889, he was called on by the inventor Nikola Tesla to test electric motors for three-phase alternating current in his laboratory for the Tesla Electric Company in New York. This experience led Emil Kolben to focus on the construction of alternating current motors and provided the basis for his lifelong success.
Kolben and his wife Malvína (1863–1940) returned to Europe at the beginning of 1892. He became the chief engineer at the Oerlikon Engineering Plant in Zurich, where he worked on the foundations for the development of synchronous and asynchronous three-phase motors and the long distance transmission of electric energy.
After returning to Prague, Emil Kolben founded the company KOLBEN and Co., Electro-technical Factory in Prague-Vysočany on 29 October 1896. The ultramodern factory layout and machinery facilitated efficient production and was recognized as an outstanding attempt to combine European and American workshop practices. In 1898, with financial backing from the Trade Bank, the company was renamed Electro-technical Joint Stock Company, formerly Kolben and Co. The factory was expanded to include a power station, foundry, forge, modelling department, engine room and a goods office, and began taking the world by storm. In 1907 his company concluded an agreement with the Ringhofer Engineering Plant for the construction of the Praga Automobile Factory, and the first cars soon came off the assembly line. By 1910, the Vysočany factory had produced 10,000 electrical machines, as well as 70 large power stations, including distribution points.
In 1921, Kolben’s company merged with the Czech-Moravian Engineering Works to form Czech-Moravian-Kolben, Joint Stock Company in Prague, where Emil Kolben was head of electrotechnology. An agreement for technical collaboration with the American firm Westinghouse in Pittsburg, which was concluded in 1922, was of great importance for further progress in electrotechnological production. In 1927 the company merged with Breitfeld-Daněk in Karlín-Prague to form Czech-Moravian-Kolben-Daněk, Joint Stock Company (ČKD). ČKD set about constructing aircraft in Karlín during the world economic crisis of 1930, was involved in supplying electricity to Slovakia from 1932 onwards, began manufacturing large Kaplan turbines and the successful automobile Aero 50 in 1935, and made the first trolleybuses for Prague in 1937. Emil Kolben’s unique career culminated in his 70th and 75th birthday celebrations in 1932 and 1937.
After the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands in March 1939, Emil Kolben had to give up all his posts at ČKD and to sell the family-owned cable factory in Hostivař and electroisolation company in Hloubětín. At the end of 1941, his freedom of the village of Strančice was revoked; his sister Kamila and brother Alfred ended their lives in joint suicide there in 1942. His son-in-law Vilém Lieder-Kolben and grandchildren Harry and Hanuš Werner were arrested and deported in 1942. On 9 June 1943, at the age of 81, Emil Kolben was deported to the Terezín ghetto with his daughter Lilly, son Hanuš and grandson Jindřich. Emil Kolben died there three weeks later. In total, 26 members of the Kolben family perished as a result of racial persecution during the Holocaust.
Although the ČKD Factory was one of the key pillars of Czech industry in the post-war years, it was forbidden under Communism to talk about its capitalist founder. It was only after 1989 that Emil Kolben was given recognition: a metro station and a street in Prague 9 have since been named for him, Strančice has reinstated his freedom of the town in memoriam and, on 26 September 2006, his memorial plaque at Vysočany Town Hall was unveiled for the 110th anniversary of the founding of ČKD.
Hanuš Kolben (20 December 1895, Zurich – 10 July 1944, Auschwitz) went to the Technical University in Prague on his father’s wishes. During the First World War, he worked as a constructor of electrical machines at his father’s company and completed his studies after the war. Later, he married a young doctor of philosophy Alžběta Winternitzová, with whom he had two sons Hanuš Werner (1922) and Jindřich (1926). From 1922, Hanuš Kolben was director of Trmice Ironworks in Ústí nad Labem and later was employed at the cable factory in Prague-Hostivař. Hanuš and Alžběta divorced at the beginning of 1930 and their children were entrusted to their father’s care.
Hanuš Kolben remarried in May 1931 and the next few years seem to have been among his happiest. In his spare time he devoted himself to painting Fauvist and Expressionist-style landscapes and still lifes. Painting afforded him great pleasure and was given greater focus after he was dismissed from his job. More than 30 of his paintings have survived, and these are now being exhibited for the first time. They give a picture of some of his happier moments in the last years before deportation. When he was no longer able to get out into the landscape, he painted from old photographs and postcards. Hanuš Kolben was deported to Terezín on 9 June 1943 together with his father Emil, sister Lilly and son Jindřich. On 15 December 1943 he was sent to Auschwitz, where he perished in the gas chambers at the age of 49 on 10 July 1944. His eldest son Hanuš Werner died of spotted typhus in the Kaufering Concentration Camp in February 1945.
Jindřich Kolben (b. 30 October 1926, Prague) was expelled from school for racial reasons in 1941 and was deported to Terezín on 9 June 1943 with his father Hanuš and grandfather Emil. Six months later he was sent to Auschwitz, where he was placed in the so-called Family Camp B 2 b. On 12 July 1944 he was deported to the Blechhammer Concentration Camp in Silesia. This camp was evacuated on 21 January 1945 and its inmates sent on a death march to Buchenwald. Jindřich, however, managed to escape to Slovakia, where he joined the Czechoslovak army.
After demobilization he returned to Prague where, in February 1946, he graduated from high school and moved on to the Czech Technical University’s Faculty of Mechanical and Electrotechnical Engineering. In 1949, he was thrown out of the university on political grounds, but he graduated at a later date. Employed first at Motorlet Works, later at Research and Experimental Air Institute in Prague-Letňany he was the deputy of the chief designer for aircraft engines. In 1953 he married Andrée Havlíková, with whom he had a daughter, Renata (1960) and a son, Martin (1964).
After the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, the entire family left for Vienna and then for Munich, where Jindřich Kolben worked a further 25 years on the development of turbine aircraft engines at MTU-Munich. Despite his dramatic fate and the numerous obstacles he had to face in his education and employment in the post-war years, he managed to become an outstanding expert in the field of aircraft engine construction and, in so doing, to continue the Kolben family tradition.
Curated by Arno Pařík.



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