Jan Kocvara was born in 1946 in Trnava, Slovakia. His father (also called Ján) was a tailor who published a book on tailoring and taught at an apprentice school. After the Communist coup, he was forced to stop teaching and writing and began making clothes at a state enterprise. Jan’s mother, Emelia, had been a homemaker, but she began working under the Communist regime. Jan and his siblings were cared for by their grandmother while their parents were working. Although he was a better-than-average student, Jan says he was not allowed to enter high school until he had completed one year as a chef’s apprentice.
Later, Jan attended teacher’s college, where he studied Slovak and English. During the Prague Spring, Jan says he found himself ‘able to travel,’ and participated in a study-abroad program in Wales. His stay there was extended from three to five weeks as a result of the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968. Upon graduation, Jan says he had no problem finding teaching work because he was one of the first graduates with a qualification for teaching English.
Jan married in 1971 and had two sons, Ondrej and Matej. He says it was a series of events which led him to leave Czechoslovakia with his family in 1979. He and his wife were unhappy with the ideas their children were being taught in school. During the period of Normalization, Jan says that he himself was ‘encouraged to leave’ his teaching position. As a teacher, he was not granted permission to leave the country; however, once he became a waiter he was allowed to travel abroad. At first, Jan was granted permission to travel alone, but after some bartering with a well-connected family acquaintance, his whole family were issued exit visas. They took a train to West Germany and then to London where they lived for five years. Because of his language expertise, Jan got a job with BBC Radio where he was an on-air broadcaster of news and sports. He decided to move to the United States with his family when he began to feel unsafe, amid a number of attacks on radio employees. Jan applied for a job at Voice of America, and after waiting two years for his papers to clear, he and his family moved to the Washington, D.C., area. At Voice of America, Jan translated and broadcast news reports, some of which involved interviewing other Czechoslovak émigrés.
Upon arriving in both London and Washington, he immediately joined the local Sokol and other Slovak émigré groups. Because of the effect his broadcasting work had on other Czechs and Slovaks, and the success of his family, Jan says he ‘did not escape in vain.’ Jan has been back to visit Slovakia twice since he left. Today, he lives in McLean, Virginia, and teaches Slovak language classes at the Foreign Service Institute.
“Before the Communist [coup] he published a book about tailoring and was teaching at the school in the city. But, you know, when the communists came to power he was not deemed ideologically fit to educate the new generation. So he was told that it would be better if he left and, you know, he had to return to his own – of course, not to his own business because he could not have his own business – but he worked for the city or state companies that were allowed to.”
“My father was working, I would say, 16 hours a day, because after coming from work he still had some former customers and he had the equipment at home so he would work in one of the rooms until ten in the evening. And the next day go to work at six because, you know we – my mother and grandmother – had been used to a much higher standard of living than he could provide from the salary he was given. So he tried to supplement it any way he could.”
Did you know if that was illegal or not, to do that kind of outside work?
“Well, I knew it was illegal, but people did not like what those state enterprises were doing so even some people who were fairly in favor with the regime begged my father to do it for them because they just, they wanted to look good. They said ‘Ok all we can do is go to this guy because we’re never going to get it in the state enterprises.’”
“My son was in kindergarten, no actually, he was in nursery school and we went along the street for a walk and there was a big poster of Lenin and my [son] said ‘Look mommy, Comrade Lenin!’ And she said ‘This is enough. I don’t want this anymore. I had enough. They put it into the children. We have to go. We have to leave.’ So from that day on, we were trying to find some avenue how to get out.”
“She knew some lady who came to her and heard ‘You know, I know you have a daughter in the West and my husband…’ Some member of her family was seriously ill and the doctor told her ‘This person needs this medicine but we don’t have it. Only the western companies have it.’ So she asked if my mom could write to my sister to send it. And my mom said ‘Yes, I can do it, but I know that you have somebody very highly in the Communist hierarchy. In exchange, I want my son to be allowed to leave with the whole of his family for vacation.’ Because my sister was godmother to my sons and she was expecting her first son. She said ‘She wants him and his wife to be godparents to her son.’ So they said that could be arranged and that’s why we were able to leave, the whole family.”
“In spring of 1982 I was run down by a car. I got almost killed. I had two operations on my eyes, both eyes, and I was in a coma for two or three days and eventually I recovered. But after I came home, my wife and I started to talk. Prior to [me] becoming an employee of BBC, one of the Bulgarian broadcasters was killed by the Bulgarian secret service. He was poisoned – I don’t know if you heard about this – an umbrella with a poison stick, and [there was] another attempt to kill another Bulgarian but he survived that because he got medical attention soon enough. And about a year after I started for BBC there was an explosion in Radio Free Europe in Munich – in the Czechoslovak section of Radio Free Europe. So I was starting to think that maybe this [car accident] might have been something to do with it. And my wife said ‘Well we better not expect something or wait here doing nothing. Why don’t you apply for a job in Voice of America? Maybe in America it would be safer.’”
“We were given a certain amount of time to fill it with area focused material like, I said, these people who were American citizens but were active in the resistance during the war, or after the war. For example, one of my colleagues got a very nice interview with Waldemar Matuška when he emigrated to the United States. He did a series of interviews with him, so the people who were outcast in Czechoslovakia was very, very interesting material, we knew, for people over there because they were dying to hear about these people, how they did in America, what they did in America.”
Did you ever hear from people in Czechoslovakia, that they were listening to you?
“Yes we got letters, not very many. Mostly what people did was when they traveled out of the country they sent us letters. And we had many, many encouraging letters. We even had one or two visitors who were lucky to visit America, so they took the trouble to visit us and gave us some feedback, what’s interesting for them and what people want to hear and everything. Yeah, we had some feedback.”
“One old man [who visited his friend], he said that in Bratislava, every morning they would meet around ten in one of these old kaviarne they called it, coffeehouses. And they would have a task – ‘You listen to Voice of America, you listen to BBC, you listen to Radio Free Europe, and you listen to Deutsche Welle.’ And then they reported what they said, whether there was anything those reported that the other stations did not report. So they would compare notes, if you want. They never wrote anything down but they had vivid memories of what they heard and they shared their information.”
“When I was leaving the country, my primary goal was to provide a better future for my family. And I feel very, very fortunate that I was able to participate in the Cold War as a… I call myself an ideological mercenary. Because I worked for BBC, for some time I worked here as a Washington correspondent for Radio Free Europe and I worked for Voice of America. So I feel that I was very fortunate to participate in this struggle that basically may have changed history.”