Lucia Maruska was born in Cífer, a small village not far from Trnava, Slovakia, in 1953. Her father, Alfred, was an accountant at a poultry farm in the village, while her mother, Lydia, was a production manager in the knitting factory there. When Lucia was four, the family moved to Bratislava so that her father could take a job as a comptroller in the city’s municipal services bureau. Lucia says that she and her younger brother, Rastislav, continued to spend every summer in Cífer with her grandparents. Lucia’s father escaped from communist Czechoslovakia when she was nine years old. She says he did so in part because of the bigotry he faced (as he was Jewish), but primarily because her mother persuaded him to go, as she wanted the family to have better economic opportunities and to travel, ‘and we were being prevented from doing that.’ Lucia’s father first went to Israel, where he worked on a kibbutz, before being sponsored by relatives to come to the United States. He started out in Detroit before moving to Los Angeles.
Following her father’s escape, Lucia’s mother tried to find a means for the rest of the family to emigrate legally. She expected the Czechoslovak government to let her and her children leave once her husband was gone. She applied for passports, however, on numerous occasions – unsuccessfully. As a child, Lucia says she remembers making trips to Prague to sit on the steps of the presidential palace, as her mother insisted that leader Antonín Novotný would at some juncture come out and then the family would be able to reason with him. After four years of legal attempts to leave the country, Lucia’s mother devised another strategy; she rented an apartment in another town (Brno) and applied immediately for a holiday to Bulgaria. The family was granted permission to travel and left straight away, in the fall of 1967. Instead of traveling to Bulgaria, the family disembarked from their train in Yugoslavia and made their way to the Italian border. When they attempted to walk across the border to Italy, they were caught by border guards armed with machine guns and dogs. But, as the border guards and local police had never encountered a woman and children attempting an escape (men were continually caught at that crossing), they did not know how to handle the situation. The police let them go and instructed them to return immediately to Czechoslovakia. Lucia’s family did board a train bound for Czechoslovakia, but which passed through Austria en route. The family entered Austria and then asked for political asylum. Lucia says she spent just over one month in Vienna before coming to the United States in November 1967.
In the United States, Lucia entered public school in Hollywood, California. Upon graduation, she enrolled at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), received her degree in fashion design, and continued on to gain her bachelor’s degree in art history from Hunter College. In New York, Lucia became involved in Slovak and Czech organizations such as the folk dance group Limbora. Having completed college, she moved back to Los Angeles to work, and eventually took a job in Atlanta, where she met her husband, George Levendis. She moved with him to the Washington, D.C. area in 1983. The couple has two children, Marissa and William. Upon the birth of her children, Lucia became involved in American Sokol Washington, D.C. She says it was very important to her that her children learned the Slovak language and became familiar with Slovak culture. She taught folklore classes for children at the Sokol School so that children, including her own, ‘were exposed to their heritage and traditions.’ Recently, she started teaching again, bring folklore to the school’s new generation of children. She returns to Slovakia frequently because, she says, it was important for her that both of her children knew not only their heritage, but also met their Slovak and Czech family and got to know the country, including the traditional family home of Cífer.
“There were many things, and one thing she did say, which I do remember… occasionally things would come up about Jews and, Jews seemed to have gotten blamed for everything, but he never did though, it wasn’t him specifically, but I think there was always a worry. My father always used to say that Jews unfortunately always picked the line of people that was standing to get a beating. So, I think that had a little to do with it. The system, the communist system had much to do with it. But I think [it was] mostly economics. My aunt… My mother has a wandering soul, she loves to travel, she loves going places, and we were being prevented from doing that, and she wanted to travel, and also my father’s aunts came to visit in 1961. And they started telling him how ‘Oh, an accountant in America! You’ll make a lot of money! That’ll be just great for you!’ So, it was kind of a combination of things. And my father did not want to leave. He really did not want to leave. And my mother kept insisting and said ‘Try! Let’s try it! Let’s try!’ He was 40 and said ‘No, I’m too old.’ Well, no, no, no – try, try, try. So finally, they decided he was going to Vienna on business, and they started ahead of time orchestrating things: having fights, breaking plates in front of friends, all kinds of things so that people would believe there were domestic problems. And part of it was because if he was to escape then the family would be left behind and so there would be no repercussions if he escaped for personal problems – if your problems were political then it was different. So, in 1963, I believe it was March or April, he did stay in Austria.”
Hard to Leave
“We were trying to figure out how to legally emigrate, to reunite the family. I know she wrote to the United Nations, she tried the Red Cross, all kinds of organizations, no one was helping. And we used to go to Prague, she would go to the Foreign Ministry trying to get passports, all kinds of things. At some points she would go and sit on the palace steps of the presidential palace claiming that – at that time it was Antonín Novotný who was the president – he would eventually have to come that way and that she needed to talk to him. She would act up; have hysterical attacks, all kinds of things, hoping that they would release us just to get rid of her because she was an annoyance. But that didn’t happen. Meanwhile, my father was in Israel and he was sent to a kibbutz because Israel was a new country [but] he felt like ‘well, I’ve already built a new country – Czechoslovakia. But now, I really escaped to do better financially, not to get pocket money for cigarettes.’ But he did learn Hebrew and he was working as an accountant there, but his aunts, and again his mother’s sisters and brothers were all here in the United States, so his aunts finally did invite him; they sent an affidavit to invite him, and they sent him money and he went to Detroit. In Detroit, because he didn’t speak English much (my father spoke very good Hungarian and German but not English) he started sweeping factories at night until he learned English.”
“Finally she figured out that maybe if she moved to another city… She rented an apartment in Brno, and as soon as she registered at that apartment, she requested in Brno a vacation to Bulgaria. And she never did any paperwork in Bratislava. And it takes at least a week for them to figure out what’s going on. So she was registered in Brno, and within a week we had received a vacation to Bulgaria – a permit to travel to Bulgaria. It was Friday that it came in the mail, she sent me to tell my grandmother (my grandmother didn’t have a telephone) and my grandfather. So, I went to Cífer, my grandmother killed a goose, got it all baked and ready for us, [I] came back on Sunday morning, my mother packed up and on Sunday at midday, I think, we got on the train to travel to Bulgaria. She sewed all the documents we might need, including our report cards and whatever documents we had, birth certificates and marriage certificates; she sewed everything inside our bag. The goose went in there too. And we took damask sheets, because she knew that if we ran out of money we could sell those. And then we took crystal plates, small plates, a desert platter with small plates to go with it – again, so that we could sell that if we ran out of money. But inside the bag were sewn whatever dollars she had collected over the times that she was already beginning to save for this. And she had enough to bribe people if necessary.”
“We walked the hill, there was a little house out there, a man came out to pee and smoke, we had to duck and wait. And of course, in those days, the Karl May movies – Winnetou and all the films about Americans – they were very popular and they were filmed in Yugoslavia. And so we were pretending that maybe they were filmed over here and we weren’t scared for whatever reason. Oh, and just so you know, my mother and I weren’t wearing pants, we only had skirts on, and I guess at that time that I was 13 and my brother was 11. Or, my brother had turned 12 the day we left Slovakia, and I turned 14 when we came to this country. So we walked up the hill, and we walked quite a distance, and down the road we saw the checkpoint, the guard house, was way, way [behind] us, at least a kilometer; there was a small light so you could see it. So we thought ‘Wow! Maybe we’ve…’ And suddenly there were lights, dogs, and people yelling at us, soldiers screaming at us, and the soldiers had machine guns and German shepherds. And luckily my mother yelled, because they yelled ‘Stoj! Ne mrdaj!’ which is in Slovak a very dirty word, but in Slovenian it means ‘Don’t move.’ And I think they must have yelled ‘Kto tam?’ [Who’s there?] or something like that, and my mother answered ‘Women and children.’ And luckily she did, because they did not release the dogs.
“They had machine guns, but my mother kept yelling ‘Italiano!’ She thought they were Italians, she was hoping they were Italians. They were not, unfortunately. They took us back to that little house, and on the other side of the road they had caught a man who was Polish, trying to escape. And these soldiers were young kids; they were 18 to 21, they were kicking this man, they were beating him on the floor. Yes. And my brother and I, [it was] in front of us. They were being stupid. They were being stupid young kids, basically, but they had the upper hand. They had the power. A car came, they took him immediately, and I believe he went all the way to Poland, that was it, he went to prison. They had no idea what to do with us, they had never had a woman with children try to escape across the border on foot. They apparently had a lot of men trying. So, they kept trying to call the nearby village and figure out what to do. Finally, they said a car will come, nothing came, finally we had to walk back to the village.”
“We were put, it was in an area of Los Angeles that was very, very diverse, and the middle school, or at least the junior high school was at least one third Hispanic and mostly new emigrants, who did not speak English. There were Eastern European immigrants; there were eventually, not immediately, but in ’68, so within a year or so, there were kids that came from Czechoslovakia, there were Russians, because some Russian Jews were getting out, I think. The Russians were letting some Jews emigrate. And so I know I had Russian friends. There were kids from all over. And they had what they called ESL classes, which is English as a Second Language classes. So they put us in those. I think the biggest shock was… I was very novel. I had very short hair. In Slovakia, I was trying to be very fashionable and Mia Farrow who was at that time a big hit, I’m not sure what movie she made, but she had a very short, boyish haircut and I had that. We came to Los Angeles and all the girls had long, blond hair, or were trying to have long blond hair if they didn’t. And in Slovakia, I could pretty much wear anything to school as long as I looked decent. There was a dress code in public school in Los Angeles. And the girls were not allowed to wear pants in those days. Girls had to have stockings, they could not have nylons, they had to be opaque stockings, and we were not allowed to have sandals. Your toes had to be covered. And so there were things that we discovered as one day I came to school in sandals and ended up in the vice-principal’s office – I had no idea why! And I think my ESL teacher saw me in sandals and she knew immediately why, I think she sent a note that I didn’t know etc.
“But the first thing, when I did come in, because it was such a novelty, the kids took me, and they were trying to be very nice and help me – the first thing that I had to do was ‘I pledge allegiance,’ and that was a shock, because even back in Czechoslovakia, we no longer had to profess our allegiance to the country as much, I mean we did, but we took it as a joke, and suddenly I’m in a country where you’re supposed to be free to do whatever and I am being forced to pledge allegiance. That was difficult, that was difficult to comprehend.”
“She went to sew, and she went into a factory, and she was told she would get one dollar a shirt. And so she was hoping that, apparently, some of these women can make a shirt an hour. She said there was no way that she could make a shirt in an hour. It was a full shirt, it was just unbelievable. She said that some of these women that have been there for a while, they were like machines, I mean, they were just producing and they would not stop, they would not stop to go to the bathroom, they would not stop to talk, to do anything, because they had to make the money. She, after a few days that was it. She tried being a maid in a hotel, That I think lasted a day and a half. She had never worked as hard under communism. She said ‘I never worked! We always had coffee breaks!’ And suddenly she had to do labor. And she went from job to job until she finally found places that were a little less… that were a little more tolerant.”
“Oh now, on my first trip, my grandmother did embroider me a costume because she knew I was interested. So I felt like she embroidered this costume, it was beautiful, and I will wear it to church on Sunday. So I wore it to church, and my grandmother still, and her friends still wore costumes, but the old woman costumes, which were simple. But this was very fancy embroidered, so I wore it to church and got a lot of stares, but on the way back from church, on the street, a car screeches and stops, and a French couple runs out and wants to take my picture. I was laughing, I said ‘If they only knew that I was American wearing this costume!’ But hey, they were just so delighted that they saw costumes, that we were wearing costumes.”
“We always aim, if there is some event that we need to prepare for, then that’s how we work. We start from that, and they always prepare for St. Nicholas’ feast. There, it’s Czech, Moravian, Slovak carols. Dana Sablik is still helping me and she knows the Czech and Moravian [songs]. She is a professional teacher from the Czech Republic, from Moravia actually. And then I prepare or help out with the Slovak things. The costumes are basically Slovak because that is what I had. I do have some Czech costumes. It is very difficult with a small group for 15 minutes on Friday nights to prepare much, so the other thing we have been asked to do is perform at the European Union Open Doors Day [in May 2011] at the Slovak Embassy, so for that we’ve prepared Slovak dances. I have spoken to Jana Racova about doing something at the Czech Embassy. She was interested, but it is always difficult to work out the time slots. I have Czech dances that I could prepare, and the kids would be interested. But of course, the way it works with the kids is that they want to be very good and perform, but they don’t want to rehearse. And their parents also don’t have the time. And so everyone comes for a little bit on Friday nights. They want to learn. We have language classes from about 7:00 to 7:45, and then we rehearse. Everything is tight, but mainly the kids really want to do the gymnastics. So, by 8:30 they need to be in the gym doing gymnastics, and it is Friday night, they’re tired and they’re antsy. They just want to jump around and have fun.
“But I think in the long run, kids do appreciate it, I know my children are very heavily interested and involved in Slovakia, they appreciate the folklore and the culture, they enjoy it, and they understand that in today’s society, that’s pretty much the only thing that’s different from culture to culture and that it’s something you treasure and keep, you don’t live it anymore, that’s not how today’s world is, but it identifies you with a group – it’s something that you’re part of, and that has been important for them. I think that those kids who have that, it is good for them, for their soul and actually, it’s just for their mental health.”