Alfonz Sokol was born in Michalovce, eastern Slovakia, in 1956. He grew up in the village of Vel’ké Zálužie with his parents, Alfonz and Milena. His father worked in the office of a grain collection and processing facility while his mother stayed at home and raised him. Alfonz’s maternal grandfather had immigrated to the United States for economic reasons prior to WWII; his wife joined him after the War. When Alfonz was in fourth grade, his parents divorced.
Alfonz attended school in his village until fifth grade when he went to a larger school in Michalovce. He recalls his involvement in the Pioneer youth group and says that many of his group’s activities focused on botany. In the summer of 1966, Alfonz and his mother visited his grandparents who had settled in Cleveland. Upon returning home, he says his mother began making plans to emigrate. It took three years before Alfonz and his mother were finally able to leave, as they had to sell their house and receive permission from Alfonz’s father. This permission was never given, and Alfonz left the country under an assumed name. In early summer 1969, Alfonz and his mother crossed the border into Austria. They applied for a visa at the U.S. Embassy, and, while waiting, rented a suite in a guest house. Alfonz’s grandparents sponsored the pair, which facilitated the process and, after five weeks, Alfonz and his mother flew to the United States. They settled in Cleveland where his mother quickly found a job cleaning hotels. On weekends, Alfonz helped his grandmother clean offices at an oil processing plant.
Alfonz went to Hillside Middle School for eighth grade where he says studying was a struggle because he did not speak English. He communicated with a Russian language teacher and a Ukrainian student while learning English from a picture book. He says that biology and math were especially challenging subjects for him. His high school Russian teacher convinced him to study the language in college, and after taking some core courses at Tri-C Community College, Alfonz enrolled at Ohio State University. In 1976, he traveled abroad to Moscow and studied for three months at the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute. On the advice of a professor, Alfonz joined the U.S. Army Reserves as a Russian linguist; he went on active duty in 1981. In the mid-1980s, he was stationed in Munich debriefing Slovak refugees. Alfonz met his wife, Donna, at a Slovak dinner in Lakewood in 1990; the pair married in December 1991. They have three sons together. Alfonz has been involved in the Slovak community in Cleveland, attending dances and picnics and participating in organizations such as Bratislava-Cleveland Sister Cities. Today, Alfonz lives in Parma, Ohio, with his wife and children.
Obstacles to Emigrate
“My mother had to sell the house and then my father – since the divorce was pretty nasty – he didn’t want to sign papers, he needed to sign papers for me to leave Slovakia. So he actually didn’t sign the papers; I traveled to Austria and I traveled under an assumed name. Relatives lived in Bratislava, and they had already emigrated. Part of the family emigrated to Canada when, after ’68, the Canadians were taking a lot of Slovaks and Czechs. So part of the family was already in Canada, and they were related to my mother, so I guess they got the idea [for me] to assume one of their names, and we lived with them for about two weeks until I got my story straight.
And how did this make your move easier?
“Well, I don’t think it made it easier; it made it possible to travel with my mother. She traveled under her name and I traveled with my aunt.”
“You do because you need to survive. You need to be able to talk to people, and if you just speak Slovak all the time, they don’t speak Slovak in the store or Czech or Russian – now they speak Spanish – so you have to assimilate. You assimilate language-wise, but cultural-wise, that comes with the system. As you live there, you start doing what other people are doing. For my mother, she had to assimilate to the system once she bought a house, you have to cut the lawn, you have to take care of the shrubs and all that stuff. That was part of life, and with the same saying, ‘If you go Rome, you do as Romans do,’ and ‘If you go to Greece, you do as Greeks do.’ You left that life in Slovakia, and you’re surrounded by English speaking people. You still have the cultural things and you still get together with Slovaks in different organizations, but at the same time you have to live life and you have to work and make a living so you have to assimilate.”
“[We were] trying to discern – let’s say they served in the military – once we learned they served in the military, then we pursued that angle. They were already refugees at that point. If they were able to provide us with valuable information, then we could help them with getting their German visa or permit to stay in Germany, or wherever they wanted to go. If they came to us and they wanted to go to the United States, then we would debrief them and find out, and if we could help them, of course we would help them. We really weren’t interested in how they lived. What we were interested in was if they worked for the police, then we wanted to know how the police operated. If they were in the military, which most of them were, which units they served in and how did that operate. Where were the training sites and stuff like that.”
“I’m not forgetting the language, but I haven’t been there to be able to develop the language, to grow the language. Language grows and it develops. I owned a translation service for awhile, but I had to look through dictionaries all the time because I haven’t been there to develop the vocabulary. I left as a 13-year old and because I speak basic Slovak, so to speak, I can’t translate. Some people can translate, they look at it and write it down and it’s done. So it’s not a realistic goal for me to have a translation service.”
“My life in Slovakia was relatively short, so I’m more culturally developed American-wise than Slovak-wise at this point. For me, I maintain my roots so to speak by listening to Slovenské ľudové piesne [Slovak folk songs]. Now I have sons that I have dancing [with the Slovak dance troupe Lucina], so I associate with that. I was in Bratislava-Cleveland Sister Cities, but I’m an American now. I’m more American than I’m Slovak at this point.”