Joseph Pritasil was born in Miřetice, eastern Bohemia, in 1925. He was one of seven children raised on a farm by his father, Antonin, and mother, Anežka. Joseph says he had to walk three and a half miles to school on a daily basis and, on Sunday, the family walked the same path to the nearest town to attend church. After receiving his basic education, Joseph attended metal-working school and, from 1942 until the end of WWII, he worked in a local factory as a machinist.
Immediately after the end of the War in 1945, Joseph was drafted into the Czechoslovak Army, which he says was ‘a joke,’ as there were neither guns nor uniforms for any of the troops. He was told he could train for the police force instead, which he duly went to Prague to do and was accepted into the police academy. He rose through the ranks of until he became a deputy chief of unit, and was sent to Domažlice (on the West German border) to work as a border guard there. Around the time of the Communist coup in 1948, Joseph says he was asked to join the Communist Party, and when he refused he was demoted. He subsequently received an anonymous phone call saying that orders had been issued to arrest him the following day. He escaped while on duty at the border, in April 1948. Joseph spent over a year in refugee camps in West Germany; he was housed in the Goethe Schule in Regensburg before being shipped eventually to Ludwigsburg.
In 1949, he was sponsored by some distant relatives on his father’s side to come to South Dakota and work on their farm. He did that for less than one year before moving to Chicago, where he found work in a factory making fire-proof doors. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951 and sent to Heidelberg, Germany, for two years. During this time, says Joseph, he competed on behalf of his unit (the 62nd Anti-Aircraft Division) at the ski championships at Garmisch Partenkirchen. He says he has ‘fond memories’ of his time in the Army, but was eager to return to Chicago to marry his wife, Rose. He was married in 1954 and has four children, all of whom speak Czech. Joseph worked as a superintendant at a number of factories in the Chicago area until his retirement, and has presided over a number of local and national Czech organizations, such as the Czechoslovak National Council of America and the District Alliance of Czech Catholics. He hopes to visit Europe with his grandson in 2011.
“We were drafted into the Army. Three of us [two friends and I] were eligible so we went to the Army. And we went to the Army, which didn’t have any guns, any uniforms or nothing, it was just a joke. There was one sergeant up there, who woke us up in the morning and we ran around – but that was just for one week. Then they told us that they are forming some police force in Prague, and that we would be eligible to join that. So I says ‘okay,’ so I offered to join. But we had to go to Prague and I was the one who passed, the other two didn’t pass, I had the highest education.”
“I – as the officer of a unit – I was immediately suspended and put down among the troops. And there was a new guy who took my place, Fred Kužel, who didn’t know how to write a služební lístek [office memo], if you know what that is. I did all the administrative jobs myself. So, we went around and around, and everything continues. And then one day, one day I got a telephone call from I don’t know where, and a voice says ‘Pepík, is that you?’ I said yes. He said ‘Tomorrow morning at 8 they’re coming to arrest you.’ So that sort of jerked me up a little bit, you know?”
Guarding the Border
“At night we went on duty. And there was a little hill, and down at the bottom there was a creek and a flour mill. And so I says ‘You know, you guys, I want to go down and see if there is somebody, if I can catch somebody, down by the mill.’ So I went back there, nobody followed me, nobody looked where I was going. Well, I came to the mill, I looked around, nobody was following me, nobody was calling. So I just – being a good Christian – I made my cross on my forehead and crossed the border.”
“When I was in the Army, I also joined the ski troops and I wound up in the 1953 Olympics [sic. International Ski Championships in Garmisch Partenkirchen]. I was not that good, you know. Because I went down the hill, in Garmisch Partenkirchen, and something came into my ski and I flipped over and they carried me out of there.”
So while you were in the Army, you also went to the Olympics?
“Oh yeah, that was in the Army. I was representing the Army there. So they took me to the hospital and there wasn’t anything broken, just a sprain. So they took me in and patched me up, and the next day, there were games going on, so they took me in an ambulance and drove me right to the field where they have the exercises for the Olympics. So, I had a beautiful, beautiful view up there.”