Ladislav Fedorko was born in Spišské Tomášovce, eastern Slovakia, in 1946. His father, Jozef, worked as an engineer on the railroad passing through the town (which linked Prague to the Soviet Union), while his mother, Žofia, stayed at home raising Ladislav and his brothers. The family kept a number of animals and produced a lot of their own food, says Ladislav. Growing up, Ladislav says he wanted to become a forest engineer, but when his application to university was rejected, he decided to become a military doctor, as he knew such individuals were in demand and this gave him the chance to obtain a degree in science. Ladislav started his medical studies in 1964 in Hradec Králové. He studied there until Czechoslovakia was invaded by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, after which he quit the Army and transferred to the Prague campus of Charles University to finish his degree as a civilian medic.
Upon graduation, Ladislav worked for one year in Karlovy Vary before marrying and accepting a job in Levoča, not far from where he was raised. Ladislav enjoyed a deal of professional success at the hospital, becoming the vice-chairman of the head and neck surgery department. In 1986, he decided to visit the United States as a tourist with his wife. During this visit, he met some of his cousins who lived in Youngstown, Ohio, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, for the first time. When he returned to Czechoslovakia, Ladislav says the secret police took an interest in the fact that one of his relatives was working for GE. In 1988, Ladislav says he was approached by an StB agent who told him that the secret police would fake his escape from Czechoslovakia and that he should move to Connecticut to infiltrate GE. Ladislav and his family fled Czechoslovakia shortly before his faked escape was due to take place in September 1988.
The Fedorko family spent 22 months in Austria, in the course of which communism fell in Czechoslovakia. Ladislav says his family did not want to return as they no longer had a home, and all of their belongings had already been seized and redistributed. He found it difficult to work with the American Embassy in Vienna, which he says insisted there was no longer any political reason for him to seek asylum in the United States. Eventually though, in 1990, the Fedorkos did receive U.S. visas and settled in Youngstown, where they remained for the next seven years. Ladislav says it was a slightly more active Slovak community which attracted his family to Cleveland, among other things. He now works as a family doctor in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, and lives with his wife in nearby Strongsville. The couple have two children.
“My daddy got one horse which was carrying soldiers for years during WWII. And because my village was situated only seven kilometers (that was four and a half or five miles) from an airport, the horse was trained that once there was an airplane in the air, [it] would run into the ditch and lay down, you know, not to get hurt. So my daddy tried to use the horse for agricultural work and I remember that the horse was carrying I think hay or something, and then an airplane came so he just pulled everything into the ditch and we experienced this kind of funny disaster. So the horse was, for agricultural work, absolutely worthless, because every time an airplane was in the air, he was just running away. It was funny.”
“At the time, the Army was looking for new doctors in the Czech Republic, and the Czechs were a little bit unfamiliar with Slovak conditions so they didn’t care [about Ladislav’s background] – and there was a parity, there was 25 percent Slovaks, 75 percent Czechs who had to get ready to be a military doctor. So I fitted into that 25 percent, and so I moved to the Czech Republic and I studied medical school to be a military doctor until 1968, when we found out that to serve the Communist Army… We became again newly occupied by the Russian forces… So we somehow – many of us – only 12 from the entire group of 120 students, only 12 stayed as military doctors, the rest of us transferred to medical school. I was almost done, I was ready to go into the fifth year of medical school, and so I finished in Charles University in Prague, not far from Hradec Králové, which was a city with a medical school preparing doctors for the military.”
“I have a diploma in Marxism-Leninism. I was vice-chairman of the head and neck surgery department so, as one of the top positioned physicians, I had to be well educated in politics. So Marxism – the philosophy and economy and whatever else comes… I had to go and take a state exam at the state board, and I have a diploma in political sciences now.”
Can you tell me about studying for that? Was that in a night school where you had to go and study Marxism and Leninism?
“Yes, it was a night school, it was like continuous education. But the basic stuff, even in medical school, from when I started in 1964 ‘til 1968, we had except from medical classes, we had to take always… first it was history of Marxism and Leninism, so it was first and second year at medical schools. We took classes and then the exam eventually. Then it was political economy – I think that was in the second year. Then it was… I forget, but in 1968, everything ended. Eventually it was implemented again in the ‘70s – during Husák’s era – but I was out of school by that time.”
“I think that medicine was the only science that was not too influenced or penetrated by those dangerous, stupid ideas because even big communist shots needed occasionally doctors. Teachers, my wife was a teacher, [they had] trouble, because they had to teach and preach different kinds of stupid ideas, but in medicine it was not… If it came to it in medicine – to real pain, to a real appendix – there is not too much politics. So we were a little bit saved from this propaganda. Our field was always a little bit out of this big oppression or pressure.”
“So, until the last minute I was pretending I was going to work for them; I was going to take this position to be trained in September in Jevany, close to Prague (it was a big training center for espionage.) But it was May and he [the StB agent in contact with Ladislav] said, ‘You know, our general in Prague – he trusts you, but he still has some kind of problems, I don’t know what. You have to show some proof that you are going to work for us, not against us.’ I said ‘Okay, what do you want?’ They said ‘We want you to go to Yugoslavia for vacation and prove that you are coming back. We are going to watch you.’ So I applied for vacation in Yugoslavia, I got dinars, the money (it was not easy to get them.) So I was about to leave for vacation and everything was okay. After my return I was supposed to start my training in espionage and then pretend to emigrate and… like I said…
“I got a visa, my daughter got a visa, and my son. But we didn’t get approval for my wife from the school. I went up there and said ‘Okay, but the papers were here – we have to travel tomorrow and I have no papers for my wife! I remember everything was okay so, she can go, his [her boss’s] approval was done, but the papers are not here!’ The director of the school was already vacationing and the vice-chairman said ‘Okay, I remember it was okay,’ and so he wrote me by hand another permission so that she could travel. It was his big mistake – poor guy – he lost his job after that.”
“[Our] experiences in Austria with the American Embassy, how they were handling political refugees, it was another horror; I don’t like to talk about it. This was one very sad part of my story. Those people in the American Embassy in Vienna – that was just a very bad impression. But I had applied for a visa here and I couldn’t do anything. I eventually changed my mind, I said okay – because in the meantime communism crashed down – I said ‘Okay, I’m going to live in Austria,’ because I had enough friends up there or whatever, the local people. But they said ‘Sorry, we cannot do anything, you applied for America.’ And America was behaving… Especially during the time when communism was crashing down, they said ‘Okay, you have no more political reasons to go to America.’ We were waiting 20 months and then communism crashed down. You have no political reasons… but I had no house, I had nothing, they took everything. And not only that, but this kind of so-called democracy, one week old, I’ve experienced in 1968. Democracy lasted six months, they came back, and who were the first in Siberia? Those guys who enjoyed the so-called democracy! So I said ‘No, no. I’m not going to go back.’”
No Return to Slovakia
“Okay, there are several factors, people probably don’t talk about it. There’s the age factor; you don’t want to jump back and forth, back and forth, first. Secondly, coming back up there – it’s a little bit superficial, but the neighbors… ‘Hah! Fedorko is back here! He thought America was going to welcome him!’ So to prove this? No, I would not come back. Many of my neighbors when communism fell and I was fighting for my house, to get it back, everybody was telling me ‘What do you want it for? You’re in America! You don’t need your house back!’ So they were even mad with me that somebody had stolen my house, and I was fighting for it to get it back. So, you don’t want to live amongst those people again. Another factor was that my kids were in the middle of education here. You cannot just go back – they have to finish somewhere. They were in Slovakia in gymnázium, Austria ingymnázium, here… three times in gymnázium! So that’s something unusual. And then the age factor – let’s say it this way: in this area where I am right now, if I get a heart attack or I get a stroke, within a couple of minutes I am in the hospital, my family will bring me, and I know they are going to save me here. We know our potential, there’s no doubt about it: the level of medical services is the highest in the world here, right here in this Cleveland area.”