Elizabeth Rajec was born in Bratislava in 1931. She grew up in the center of the city where her parents, Vavrinec and Theresa, owned a tailoring business. She also lived with her two brothers, one sister and grandmother. Due to her diverse background (her four grandparents were Austrian, Slovak, Hungarian and Croat), Elizabeth spoke several languages at home and school. Her family owned a cottage in the outskirts of Bratislava and Elizabeth has fond memories of spending summers there. In 1947, Elizabeth and her family were deported to Hungary following the passage of the Beneš decrees. She calls this event ‘devastating,’ especially for her parents. The family settled in Budapest where Elizabeth graduated from gymnázium and studied Germanic languages and literature at university. After graduating, Elizabeth volunteered to translate for a Slovak folk group that was performing in Budapest. She was then offered a job as a translator and director of cultural affairs for a Czechoslovak cultural organization in Budapest.
In December 1956, following the Hungarian Revolution and the subsequent Soviet occupation of the country, Elizabeth decided to leave Hungary. She crossed the border on foot and made her way to a refugee camp in Vienna where she stayed for about one month. She sailed to the United States and arrived in New York in February 1957. After a short stay at Camp Kilmer (a camp for Hungarian refugees in New Brunswick, New Jersey), Elizabeth moved to New York City. She says that although her English language skills were poor, she found a job as a seamstress working for a Viennese woman. While working, Elizabeth was able to attend Columbia University where she received her bachelor’s degree in Germanic language and literature. She later received a master’s degree and doctorate in the same subject from the City University of New York (CUNY). Elizabeth also has a master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University. An expert on Franz Kafka, she taught literature and library courses at City College and the Graduate College of CUNY. She retired as professor emerita from CUNY in 1996 and, in her retirement, has written several books and taken an interest in photography, staging exhibits in the United States and abroad.
Shortly after arriving in the United States, Elizabeth met her husband, Herman Rajec, a Slovak who had immigrated to New York after WWII. The pair became active in the Czechoslovak community in New York, attending dances and events at the Bohemian National Hall. After receiving U.S. citizenship in 1962, Elizabeth returned to Bratislava and Budapest for the first time, and has returned to Europe often to visit family and friends. Today she lives in New York City.
“I have the best memories. I had a very good childhood. We were kind of middle-class-ish; we had a summer house on the outskirts of Bratislava. In the city we had a three-story building where my family lived too – my grandma lived there, my aunt lived there. I was very, very wanted; I was the [youngest sic] girl after little Theresa died, so I have the best memories. I had excellent school friends. I can say only the very best. A lovely childhood ruined, of course, after 1938 because of the War. Then everything went down.”
“For instance, my father was a tailor and he had sometimes even 30 or 40 employees. It was a big enterprise, and lot of the Jewish customers no longer were able to order or came, so that he lost his better lady customers. Because of that, then we moved to a smaller place. The War years were not easy on anybody.”
“The Germans started to collect any male they could at the very end – and I’m talking here about the end of March and beginning of April 1945; Bratislava was liberated on April 4 – and when my father heard that, and since my brothers were 17 and 18 at that time, in other words, in a very dangerous age group, he wanted to run with them to our summer house and hide there. They were trying to go through the front line where the Russians and Germans were fighting before it closed and they never made it because the Russians came closer and closer. So they made it back to Marianska Street where we lived just in the nick of time. Maybe an hour later Bratislava was occupied by Russians and liberated. Many times we had Russian generals and soldiers sleep in our house. The police came around and asked for people to accommodate, and we had excellent relationships with them, speaking the Russian language too.”
So the Russians were good guys.
“Very. Very welcome, very wanted. For us they were really our liberators.”
“My first kindergarten schooling was in the Czech language because we lived in Grösslingová and that was quite a famous city [school] where better middle-class people had their children. This was still under the Czechoslovak Republic when I was born, so my first education was really in the Czech language. Then came the decision to put me in the Ursuline convent school, which was supposedly the best and there we had Hungarian and Slovak mixed education. After that, by 1941-ish, I was enrolled in the German gymnázium, which of course I couldn’t finish. I was 16 [when deported] and not yet ready and I eventually made my maturita examination and finished my gymnázium education in Budapest. So I was raised in four languages. We always spoke all languages at the dinner table. Everybody could say it in the best way he wanted to, so it was an international polyglot family dinner every night.”
“I left after the Hungarian Revolution and my last day in Hungary was three days before Christmas. My escaping is a very interesting story and luckily, again, I had a good star above me helping me. The railroad people were very kind to us and helped us [know] when to escape and how to escape the last part on foot, because by that time Soviet tanks were already coming on the hour, by the hour and we had a very short time to cross the border. It was very risky. A lot of people died and if we would have been caught, we would have been sent to prison, so that was very difficult. The actual three hours that I needed to cross the border was a very stormy, snowy night and I helped a family with a baby and we most likely walked around in circles. We didn’t know where to go because we couldn’t see in front of our nose; the snow was falling and windy and bad. But here I am and I made it.”
“Since my father was a tailor, I had a fashion school degree and I knew a lot about fashion. So I went to the unemployment office here in New York and said that I would like to find a job in the fashion industry, and it happened to be that a company called Johanna Frankfurter was looking for somebody to help. When I went to introduce myself, it turned out to be a lovely lady from Vienna and, since I spoke German and lived in Vienna for a short while, we fell in love and she immediately hired me. All she is asked is ‘Do you know how to make buttonholes?’ and I said ‘Of course I know,’ because there are three types of buttonholes. For those who are not familiar with the fashion industry, you can make them with fabric, you make them as embroidery and you can even match when you have square fabrics and patterns. My father taught me so I knew a lot and the only problem I had when I asked for the job and introduced myself was when she said ‘Make it three-quarters of an inch’ as a sample, and I had no idea what three-quarters of an inch was because I was raised with centimeters. I did not dare to give it away that I didn’t know, so I thought ‘It cannot be that small like on a shirt; it cannot be as big as on a coat; it must be the in-between like on a jacket or something,’ and I made exactly a three-quarters of an inch buttonhole without knowing. So they came and measured it and said ‘Perfect.’ Then I gave it away and said ‘Sorry if I did not match it exactly, because I have no idea what an inch is.’
“With that, I just indicated I was very ignorant and uneducated for the American system; however, I knew more than anybody else there. They discovered that I knew how to handle velvet, I knew how to handle specials silks, knew how to make patterns, how to cut. So in no time I became almost like the leader at the company which was excellent. The relationship was so good with Mrs. Frankfurter; she became like my mother and I became like her daughter. The other thing was that she let me go and study. I said ‘My goal is that I want to continue and I want to finish and I want to end up with a PhD.’ So she helped me and I could go away anytime I wanted to. For instance, we made fashion shows at the Plaza Hotel, among others, and the wedding dresses, always the biggest job, was always me. And I went there Saturdays and Sundays and I worked on my own to make sure I finished everything. So our relationship was excellent, which gave me an excellent salary that I could pay for Columbia – I didn’t ever have a loan – and could support my parents in Hungary.”
“I felt a little disturbed by that. The reason is I was born in Czechoslovakia, so my childhood, my education, my upbringing was always in the Czechoslovak spirit, the Czechoslovak Republic. Then when Slovakia was first created, that was during the fascist period and that was something negative rather than positive. Then after 1945 when Czechoslovakia was combined again, we were euphoric, we were happy. Then came the communist takeover and the whole change, so it’s almost like a roller coaster you go and experience. Now when I go back – the latest was a year ago, to Prague – I think that it was a good decision. That the two have different backgrounds, and I’m talking economic backgrounds. The Czech Republic region was always more industrial and more advanced and the Slovak [region] was more agrarian, so to speak. They always supplied. I was told all the eggs and all the bread always came from Slovakia. True or not true, I do not know. But today Slovakia has a chance to become more industrialized – Volkswagen apparently has a company there and other American steel industries created companies in Slovakia, so they have a chance to grow on their own.”