Luba DeWitt was born in Nitra, a city in eastern Slovakia, in 1957. Her father, Michal, was a high-up intelligence official while her mother, Božena, was an office clerk in the police department. Luba lived with her mother and younger sister in Nitra and Banská Bystrica before settling in Bratislava, and often spent holidays in the village of Krtovce where her maternal grandparents lived. After going to elementary school in Banská Bystrica, Luba attended gymnázium in Bratislava. Her final year was spent at a school in the mountain town of Banská Štiavnica learning German and preparing to study abroad during university. Luba says that she made the decision to study abroad because she was somewhat unhappy and ‘wanted to experience something else.’
In 1977, Luba began studying philosophy at the University of Leipzig. She says that her education was rather limited, as ‘everything was based on Marxism-Leninism’ and scholarly materials were not always available. During vacations, Luba worked as a tour guide for Čedok (then a state-run travel agency) and, in this capacity, was able to travel to Western countries on bus tours and cruise ships. Upon graduation, Luba began studying for her PhD at Comenius University in Bratislava and found a job at a library in a technical university. At this time she was also ‘determined to learn English’ and started taking private English lessons. In 1983, Luba met her future husband, Richard DeWitt, an American whose mother was from the neighboring village of Luba’s grandparents. The pair married in November of that year and Luba moved to Florida shortly thereafter.
Luba became an American citizen ‘as soon as it was possible,’ and she has fond memories of her naturalization ceremony, which took place on a presidential yacht in Biscayne Bay. After teaching history and social studies at several area high schools, Luba became a language professor at Florida International University and Miami Dade College. She has been a real estate agent in the Miami area for over a decade.
Recently Luba has become quite active with the American Czech-Slovak Cultural Club, sitting on the board and spearheading the refurbishment of the organization’s clubhouse. A dual citizen, Luba reads Slovak newspapers and continues to follow the politics of her home country; she says she is ‘very passionate about Slovak causes.’ Luba and Richard’s daughter is also a Slovak citizen. Today Luba lives with her husband in Coral Gables, Florida.
“That’s probably the only place in Slovakia that has not changed. It remains always the same, and that reminds me very much of my childhood, of my happiest days. Perhaps they have internet nowadays but I doubt it, and people are still genuine and the same, and there is a road there and people probably have cars but there is still only the one shop, one pub. Nobody ever moves and the traditions remain, and I love that. There are very few places in the world that you can come and still find the same after many, many years away.”
Growing up there in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, how equipped was that village then? It seems that things like electricity, etc., came quite late to parts of Czechoslovakia.
“I do remember, yes, they did not have electricity when I was little; we used candlelight. The water was pumped from the pumpa. The news was announced on the public loudspeakers. When the butcher came to town it was always announced – first it was a drummer announcing that; then later, when they brought the electricity, the loudspeakers were announcing that the butcher is coming to town. Now I think there is some kind of more sophisticated way to do it. People get newspapers and they have television.”
“We were one of the five families that were Lutheran. The majority of the population in the village were Catholics. We had our own bell tower; so when a child was born in a Lutheran family, the bells were ringing in the bell tower and when a child was born to Catholics, the church [bell] was rung. Or if somebody died… We were very proud of our bell tower. So when my husband’s mother died – she was originally from the village next door – we dedicated the bell tower to his mother and to my grandmother. So if you would go to our small village, there is a plaque remembering both.”
Communist Philosophy 101
“Everything was based on Marxism-Leninism: interpretation of beautiful objects, the sciences, everyday life, psychology. Everything was based on Marxism-Leninism. And we did not have any access to literature that we would have a desire to read. At the university library in Leipzig, there was room called the ‘black room,’ and you had to have special permission from the head of your department to go and read the daily news, and, certainly, they had all the West German magazines and publications and so on. So no, it was not accessible.”
“I was absolutely determined that I was going to learn English, so I had hired a private teacher. It was a couple, Graham and Angela. They were British, and they were working at Comenius University teaching English and they needed extra income. So I hired them and I said ‘My goal in life right now is I must learn to speak English’ and they said ‘Alright.’ I gave them my entire salary. Whatever I was making, I gave it to them. I said ‘This is all that I have. I can’t pay you any more, but I’ve got to learn English.’”
Why were you so keen to learn English?
“I just felt that if I speak English I would have better opportunities in life, I would learn more, I would read more that’s not accessible, and, you know, ‘As many languages as you speak, so many times you are a human.’ I spoke a very basic, conversational English. After three months learning the language, I remember that Angela gave me a magazine, People magazine, and she ‘Read the article to see how far you are developing.’ I read the article – it was about the death of John Lennon – and I understood everything. It was like you were in the dark and suddenly light came about. It was wonderful, wonderful.”
“I was happy that the regime collapsed, of course, and that was because of my family. On the other hand, I was unhappy that the republic was divided into Czech [Republic] and Slovakia. There was no reason for it and the sad results of it too, because the Slovak nationalism developed in a quite awful way. That made me feel very sad about my people. But it was just beautiful for my family; I was very happy, of course, for all the struggling people that they would have a new life, better life, better opportunities. It was better for them.”