For nearly half his life, Josef Mestenhauser lived a sort of double life.
In Minnesota, he was a revered professor who won international awards promoting student exchange programs around the world.
But in his native Czechoslovakia, he was a wanted man, sentenced to prison in absentia as an “enemy of the people.”
His crime: opposing the 1948 Communist revolution.
Mestenhauser, who died March 14 at age 89, spent 43 years living in “exile,” building a distinguished career at the University of Minnesota, before it was safe to go home again.
“I don’t think he ever thought he would have the opportunity to go back to his own homeland,” said daughter Patricia Bergh, of Minneapolis.
In fact, Mestenhauser returned countless times after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, eventually serving as a cultural emissary and Honorary Consul for the Czech Republic from 1999 to 2008.
Mestenhauser was a 22-year-old law student in Prague when he was caught on the wrong side of history. An outspoken anti-Communist, he was arrested by the secret police when the Communists seized power, and beaten and imprisoned for three weeks.
Sympathizers helped him escape, he once told the Star Tribune, “by calling me for a hearing someplace else in the Ministry of Interior and simply not returning me.” He slipped across the border to Germany and arrived in the U.S. in 1949, eventually landing a teaching job at the University of Minnesota, where he earned his Ph.D. in political science.
Back in Czechoslovakia, he later learned, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. His parents didn’t know if he was dead or alive, Bergh said, until a relative sent them coded messages, referring to him as “Verushka” to fool the secret police.
In Minnesota, Mestenhauser thrived — he married, had three children, and became a professor in the College of Education and Human Development. He authored more than 120 scholarly papers and lectured around the world on international education and cultural exchanges.
But he was circumspect about his past, his daughter said. “[We] had to beg him to talk about it,” said Bergh. He refused to speak Czech at home or teach it to his children. “He almost wanted to block out that part of his life.”
Until 1991, that is, when he heard from his brother, Zdenek, whom he hadn’t seen in 43 years. The new Czech government had dropped the charges against him, and invited Mestenhauser back to Prague to pick up the law degree he never had a chance to finish.
Mestenhauser later described the trip as “emotional and cognitive overload,” according to a memoir by author Patricia Hampl. His family, he learned, had been punished for his “sins”: The government wouldn’t allow his brother to go to college, or his father, who died in 1950, to be buried in the family tomb.
Bergh said her father worried that his brother would blame him, “but he never did. He was just so proud to think that somebody in the family had actually gotten to freedom.”
Over the next 20 years, Mestenhauser became a tireless advocate for his cultural heritage, co-founding the Czech and Slovak Cultural Center in St. Paul.
“He always spoke sort of nostalgically and fondly about Czechoslovakia,” said Renata Ticha, president of the cultural center, who called Mestenhauser her mentor. Despite the past, she said, “he really was emotionally still very connected.”
In addition to Bergh, Mestenhauser is survived by his wife, Patricia, daughter Anne Bentley, son Josef P. Mestenhauser, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A private service has been held.
Maura Lerner 612-673-7384