Jozef Bil was born in Bartošovce in eastern Slovakia in 1961. He grew up with his grandparents, parents, two older sisters and an older brother. Jozef’s grandfather lived in the United States during the 1920s for about ten years and worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. He returned to Slovakia where he bought land and built a large farm. Jozef says that his grandfather’s stories about the United States planted a seed of emigration that stayed with him until he left Czechoslovakia in 1990. Jozef played guitar in a band for many years and says that he and his band mates often played English-language songs, even though they didn’t understand the lyrics. He attended a construction industry high school and served in the military for two years before beginning his career in construction. In 1990, shortly after the Velvet Revolution, Jozef immigrated to the United States with a friend. He lived in Pittsburgh for several years and worked in construction before moving to New York City. He became a construction supervisor and now owns a general contracting company.
Jozef continues to write and play music; he recently put out a CD of Slovak songs and has performed at festivals. He is active in the Slovak community in New York and especially enjoys the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens. When Jozef travels back to Slovakia, he often meets with his siblings in the house their grandfather built and which Jozef has renovated. He became an American citizen in 2008 and says that the United States is where his heart is. Today he lives in New York City.
1st Hearing About U.S.
States back in the ‘20s. He spent nine or ten years in the coal mines in Pennsylvania and he was trying to get my grandmother to come to America, but she was afraid to make the journey, so he came back. He would speak in Slovak and he would use English words; you know, you spend time in America, you kind of get confused. So he would tell me ‘Syn moj, Ty ked vyrasties len chod do Ameriky, keby si vedel ake tam maju velke buildingy.’ I’d say, ‘Ok, but what is buildingy?’ I had no clue as a child. So he explained what a building is. He just said ‘When you grow, my son, don’t stay here, just go to America. If you only saw what big buildings they have!’ Or another sentence that puzzled me was ‘If you go to America…’ Obviously he was speaking in Slovak: ‘Keby si vedel ake tam maju velke cary.’ I said ‘What the hell is cary?’ Well, he was referring to cars. So that was the idea that stuck in my mind and he kind of injected the temptation in my head. So I was growing up and I was thinking always ‘One day I am going to go there and see what America is all about.”
“As a child growing up in a small village, life was very happy, merry. The only thing we had to play with was outside, not like the children of today [with] computers and all that stuff. So we’d run with the ball, we’d play soccer and all kind of playing that kids would do outside as all kinds of after-school activities.”
Did you grow up in a house or an apartment?
“My grandfather, rest in peace, he returned from America as a rich man so he bought a lot of land. He was a big farmer; he had six horses, four cows… It was like owning a Mercedes at the time. He built a house that is still on the same property, which I fixed as a memory to him. Nobody lives there, but my sister spends summers over there and that house is a memory to all of us. I have three siblings, a brother and two sisters, so whenever I come to Slovakia we always gather there and we pull out pictures of our childhood and we’re laughing our tails off.”
Catholic vs. Communist
“When I finished my school and started working the state-run construction industry, okresný štátny podnik as they called it. The vice-president comes to me one day and says to me ‘You are a young prospective talent; we want you in the Party,’ and I said ‘I go to church.’ And he’s like ‘So?’ ‘Well, I go to church, so I can’t serve two masters. I believe in God, so I cannot believe in Lenin or whatever.’ He had a smirk on his face. He wouldn’t bother me; he saw that he wouldn’t get me there.”
Weren’t you afraid?
“No. It was my persuasion; it was my belief. I had my education, I had my work, I wasn’t afraid of being in jail because I wasn’t a rebel, I was part of the masses that were part of the regime or ruling party, so I told them straight ‘No. Don’t even bother coming back because I’m not signing. I have no reason.’ There were cases, I know, where there were guys in the Communist Party and they were part of the church as well. So I was laughing. How can you be sitting on two chairs? I didn’t like the idea of somebody forces you into something and watching behind their back. It was just no. My answer was no.”
“I told him ‘I’m not going to settle down here because I know Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, is no place for me,’ and he was kind of upset about it because he saw other guys, 28 years old, settling down. I had a big place to build a house on and I said ‘I’m not going to waste my money and build a house because I don’t fit in here.’ As I said, that injection from my grandfather was always in the back of my mind. I want to see the world, I want to see America, and I came, I saw the light – it wasn’t easy at the beginning, but I saw the light at the end of the tunnel – and thank God I’m here, and I cannot even picture my life over there.”
“We wanted to go to the store and buy blue jeans. So I picked up the phone and I said ‘Hi Pam. Winter is coming; it’s cold outside. Could you come over and pick us up? We would like to buy a Rifle.’ Now, just to get you in the picture, Rifle was a brand of blue jeans in Slovakia and I didn’t know that blue jeans are blue jeans [in the U.S.]. It was a common thing to call blue jeans Rifles. So Pam says ‘What?’ ‘You know, it’s cold outside, we need to go out and we need to buy a Rifle.’ She says ‘Jozef, I don’t think so. It’s Sunday afternoon. I don’t think you can get a license to get a rifle.’ I said ‘A license to get a Rifle?’ She says ‘Jozef, this is America. You have to have a license to get a rifle.’ So I didn’t argue. I hung up and I tell my friend, ‘Listen, either Pam is crazy or I’m crazy. She says we need to get a license to get a Rifle.’ My friend says ‘She’s nuts. Let me see.’ So he looks up the dictionary and he says ‘Rifle. Blue jeans. Oh my God.’ So I’m calling back, ‘Pam, listen. We need to clarify something. Rifle is a brand of blue jeans in Czechoslovakia.’ We had a couple of them: Wildcat, Rifle… And she started cracking up: ‘What kind of language do you guys use in Czechoslovakia that you call blue jeans rifles?’ So whenever I pick up the phone and call her office [she says] ‘Jozef, you want to buy a rifle?’ So the language barrier and all that stuff, we’ve all been through and sometimes it’s funny how people confuse things.”
Where is Home?
“Well, they say home is where your heart is and I believe my heart is in America. What proves that is when I’m coming back from Slovakia or travels, on my way from JFK, sitting in a taxi, I feel I am coming home. So I guess my home is here and I feel more Slovak-American because you still have feelings for the country you came from. But this country gave me the opportunity to live a better life and, yes, I’m calling it my home.”