Helena Stossel was born in Prague in 1946. Helena’s parents both worked at a small silk-screening operation – her father as the manager and her mother as a silk-screener. Helena and her younger brother, Tomas, were watched by her grandmother and spent a lot of time at the chata her grandfather built outside the city. Helena says that she learned to ‘appreciate nature’ from camping, canoeing, and white-water kayaking. She also enjoyed reading and poetry. Helena went to gymnázium where she focused on the sciences and then studied chemistry at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague. She married her first husband, Lev, in 1967. The Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968 left an impression on Helena, as she congregated on Wenceslas Square with other young people and talked with the Warsaw Pact troops. Her parents and brother immigrated to the United States in July 1969 and, although Helena was reluctant to leave as she wanted to ‘fight for freedom,’ she joined her husband when he decided to leave in the autumn of 1969. The pair lived in Vienna for one month and then flew to New York City in December 1969.
After spending two weeks with family friends in Ossining, New York, Helena moved to the Boston area where her parents had settled and opened a Czech restaurant. Helena spent a few months becoming comfortable with the English language and then began working in a hospital kitchen. Her next job was in the lab of Glover Memorial Hospital and, at the request of a pathologist, she transferred to what is now Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where she worked for 40 years, retiring only a short time ago. Helena gave birth to her daughter Johana in 1974 and bought a house in Holliston (a suburb of Boston) in 1976. She married her second husband, Frank Stossel, in 1981 and first returned to Czechoslovakia in 1987. She has visited her home country many times since. Helena says that it is only recently that she became ‘at peace’ with her emigration, citing her reluctance to leave Czechoslovakia in the first place as preventing her from feeling at home in the United States. In her retirement, she hopes to travel more and go on a canoe trip in the Czech Republic. Today, Helena lives in Holliston with her husband Frank.
“I have to say one thing for the school system, since the third grade we were exposed to the classic music and arts, and that was incorporated into the education. Every month we had to go to the concert hall and see the opera, and so that’s what I think, for the education, that was pretty good.”
Warsaw Pact Invasion
“We lived on a corner; one side was a park and the other was a main street where the trolley was going, so the Russian tanks were lined up and pointing the tanks right to your windows. It was shocking. And the Prague radio was still working and they were saying ‘Don’t go to the window. They’re shooting the windows, people are getting hurt, people got killed. Don’t open the window,’ So we were listening to the radio and all of the sudden you heard shots and silence, and I’ll never ever in my life forget that silence. It was dreadful.”
Did you go down to Wenceslas Square?
“Yes, we went down. My mother said ‘Don’t go anywhere’ – my brother was still in the army – ‘Don’t go anywhere; they’re going to kill your brother. Don’t get involved.’ But my ex-husband, with his friends, they were already down there and by the time I went down there Prague radio was done. It was damaged. It was in smoke. We went to Wenceslas Square and it was pretty…First of all, you could feel how much power a crowd has. You get sucked in it and I thought that we were indestructible. We can turn those things and everything. It’s funny what it does to you in that crowd or in that situation. But we went there, it was sad, and people started to talk to the soldiers. Thinking back now, so many years back when everything settles inside me, the first troop of the soldiers they sent, they were probably hard-trained soldiers. They shot everything that moved. Second [wave] that came were like kids. They were probably 17, 18 year old Russians, scared the hell of everything that was moving. I didn’t see it then, because then I was full of hate, like ‘How dare you? What do you want?’ But thinking back, they were probably so scared too.”
“I said ‘I’m not going to leave. I’m going to fight for the freedom and I’m staying here.’ I did not want to leave. When we got occupied by the Russians, I was involved in it and [when] I went back, second day, to the hospital, we put posters there and we all wore black because we did that at midnight when the Russian tanks were all around the streets. So I was involved in it and I was hoping that the Prague Spring, nobody is going to kill it because we were going to win.”
Arrival in U.S.
“I didn’t work because I didn’t speak English. It was funny back then – from New York we came to Boston and we were looking for an apartment, so what we just went door to door and we asked ‘Do you have an apartment for rent?’ and somebody did. There was no checking or anything [so] we got an apartment. Lev was working to work, washing dishes [at] Cottage Crest restaurant in Belmont, and I was home. And for the first money we could have, we bought a television, so I would watch television and learn English because my friends sent me a tape of English but it was [British] English so it had nothing to do with American English, so when I went out I couldn’t understand because I had this Oxford English in my ear and it was like ‘What? What language is this?’ So we got a television and I remember watching I Love Lucy and I remember the first time I got some joke, I laughed and I thought ‘Boy!’ I finally understood. So it took me a few months learning and then I thought I had to go to work, so I went to the hospital and I started to work in the kitchen.
“In the meantime, I tried to learn English; I went to take some lessons, so little by little I started to understand, and I got work at Glover Memorial Hospital in the lab, drawing blood and doing chemistry tests. There was a pathologist who was going to open the lab in what’s now Brigham and Women’s Hospital – it was part of the old women’s hospital in Boston – there was another location and he said ‘Helena, I want you to go and open the lab with me.’ And that’s how I started at Brigham and Women’s. And I worked there for 40 years.”
“For Christmas or any holidays we would get together with my ma and father, my brother, his wife and his son and celebrated every holiday together, Czech way. My ma was a very good cook so she made those elaborate cakes and anything. The food, like knoedl [dumplings] and sausage, was just…[so good]. I kept the Czech tradition for Christmas and for Thanksgiving we went to Frank’s parents because we never had Thanksgiving in Czech, so we celebrated American Thanksgiving. So it was always in Frank’s parents’ house and Christmas was in our house.”
“I got over my homesickness and being here, and I am very thankful that I was here because I learned a lot which I would never learn if I never emigrated. My view of the world is much wider and I am very thankful for that because in the beginning it was a very narrow view, [I was] very homesick and I didn’t want to see anything, but little by little you learn and, all of the sudden, now when I go there – I don’t mean it in a bad way – you can see they’re looking at the world through a very narrow view. And me being here and meeting so many different people, being exposed to so many different cultures, so many different things, all of the sudden I feel very rich that I learned so much and that my view is so much bigger. So I am very thankful for that. And I am happy. For the first time, and it took me a long time, I realized that I am very happy that I am here.
“That was a big, big thing for me to come to this conclusion. Prague is always my city and always will be my home, but, all of the sudden, I don’t think I could live there. I would love to live there two months of the year now that I’m retired to get everything that I like, but I could never live there. My home is here now and that’s a huge step for me. To come to that conclusion was a big thing for me. A big relief. Because up till then, I felt, I cannot say guilty, but I felt like I missed something. I wish I was there for all that upbringing and all that feeling of freedom; that I would really appreciate it. So all my life, I felt like I deserted whatever I believed in. But it’s not there anymore. I reached my peace. I reached my point and I am happy I’m here and I learned a lot.”