Joseph Kmet was born in Chicago in 1930 but moved back to the family home of Bystričany, northwestern Slovakia, with his parents and siblings before he was one year old. Joseph says his father, Ignác, was worried that the family would not have enough to eat in the United States during the Depression, and so decided to return to Czechoslovakia to farm the land the family owned instead. Joseph’s father returned to Chicago alone to work at Western Felt Works, and found himself cut off from his family with the outbreak of WWII.
Joseph says the War was hard for his family, with his older sister shot dead in a raid on a train carrying her and other commuters to the nearby town of Partizánske (which was known at the time as Šimonovany). Following his sister’s death, Joseph says he was sent to work in her stead at the Bat’a shoe factory in Partizánske as some money was needed by the family, and he was now the oldest child. At the end of the War, the family was reunited and, after some discussion, it was decided that the Kmets would all resettle in Chicago.
Joseph left Czechoslovakia in October 1947. He took a train to Amsterdam, where he boarded a freighter which took him first to Havana, Cuba, and then Florida. Joseph says his family’s first home in Chicago was on Hamlin and 24th Street, which was a very Czech and Slovak neighborhood at the time. Joseph’s first job was at the Kimball Piano Factory; he subsequently worked at Florsheim Shoes and then retrained to become a plumber. He was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1951 and sent to Korea for two years. Upon return, he married his wife Mary, with whom he has four children. Joseph was active in the Slovak League of America and is the former president of the Slovak Athletic Association in Chicago. He lived in Westchester, Illinois, with his wife Mary until his death in September 2011.
“Well, it was the Depression, and my father – he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to raise the family here, that it would be easier in Slovakia. You know, you’ve got a little farm there, a little garden, so you can grow some of your own stuff. Or maybe, I don’t know, kill a chicken or maybe a rabbit. So, it was easier to be there than here. Here you’ve got to buy everything, so…”
“My sister, she was working in the shoe factory, Bat’a – it was about 12 to 14 kilometers away from our village – they traveled on the train early in the morning (because at 7:00 in the morning they started to work in the factory already). So, my sister she worked there, and the poor, poor girl, she was only 17, and she got killed there, in the village where she was working. Not in the factory, but Russians – airplanes, two of them – came down and the train just pulled in the station and the people were getting off that train, like the workers and they heard a noise… So everybody was ducking wherever they could, so they were running, there was a hospital close-by, maybe about half a block from the train. So most of them were running there, because they had a basement and that’s where most of the people hide. So they were running there and my sister – she was one of the unluckies – there was another one that got killed too. She got shot. They didn’t throw a bomb there, they were just shooting a machine gun from the airplane, so they just came round a couple of time and that was it.”
Bat'a Shoe Factory
“Like I said, they started work at 7:00, and you had to make sure you don’t miss the train, because it was pretty far to walk. I had to walk from the factory to our village once, because sometimes the trains were so loaded there was no room to go inside the train. A lot of times, a lot of us climbed up onto the roof and we were there. But you came home and you looked like a chimney sweep.”
“Well, they used to have a good soccer team and most of the time we used to go to the soccer game, because we had to do something before we got to know different things like… They used to have a place in churches, just about every church had some kind of little hall where we could have a stage play and, you know, one time one guy comes from a different place and we hadn’t met yet and we met him, then he had some other friends and he brought those friends over and so… And like I said, even during the winter we used to have indoor soccer, in Chicago Armory.”
Slovak Athletic Association
“When we first came and joined the club, so we used to rent places here and there, like a storefront. So finally, us younger guys we said ‘Don’t you think that it would be nice if we buy our own joint and have our own club?’ It takes some money, but you can get nothing without money, so anyhow…We talked about it more and more, so we got together and we used to pitch in. One guy would [lend] $100 and another guy $50 and, little by little, we accumulated enough for a down payment. The first club we bought, it was in Chicago on 27th and Hamlin. And like she [my wife] said, we always bought old buildings, no matter what they were – a church or an undertaker’s – and make it into a club! So that’s what we did there too. It used to be an undertaker’s, it used to be [a] church, and we converted it into a club, and so that was the beginning.
“Then finally we sold that too, because the neighborhood changed and so we were mostly living out further west, and so we bought – we started looking for a different joint – so I was in charge of looking for the place to buy. I used to have a plumbing store right next door to this building where there was an undertaker and it was like a double store. And so I went there and I talked to the daughter because I couldn’t talk to the parents, they were both dead already. I talked with her and she said ‘Well, I never thought of that to sell it, where am I going to live?’ I said ‘No problem! You can rent a place, any place you want!’ So that’s what she did, we talked more and talked more and I talked her into it.”