Matt Carnogursky was born in Bratislava in 1960. His mother Isabella had a job as a chemical engineer and his father Ivan was a mechanical engineer working for a construction company. After the fall of communism, Ivan served in the Slovak parliament and held jobs concerning the business and economic development of the country. Matt’s uncle, Ján Čarnogurský, was a fairly well-known lawyer and political dissident who held the post of Prime Minister of Slovakia from 1991 to 1992.
Matt grew up in a suburb of Bratislava and, of the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, he remembers Soviet tanks stationed across the street from his family’s apartment building. He attended a school that offered German language classes, and Matt says that these language skills introduced him to Western culture and piqued his interest in the idea of eventually leaving Czechoslovakia. He says he was also exposed to Western life when he worked at international trade shows (showcasing construction equipment) in Bratislava as a translator and assistant. Matt studied engineering at technical university in Bratislava, but in 1983, one year before graduating, he left the country when he was able to take a trip to Italy. Matt stayed in Rome for six months working with refugees, and then received immigration papers for Canada, where an uncle who had left Czechoslovakia in 1968 lived.
Matt finished his engineering degree at Concordia University in Montreal, and was subsequently hired at SPAR Aerospace; he worked there for ten years. Matt married his wife Gaby in 1991, and they have five children together. He and his family have lived all over the world, including Nigeria, Southern California, and Budapest. In 2003, the Carnogurskys lived in Plavecký štvrtok, a town outside Bratislava, for six months. Matt says this was a wonderful experience for his children and allowed them to spend time with their grandparents. In 2009, the family moved to Northern Virginia where they currently live. They also recently expanded their family by adopting three children from Haiti in early 2010. Matt says that even though he has been in so many cultures and environments, he considers himself American and is happy to be here.
“I was growing up in a suburb of Bratislava. Pretty interesting, because back then people had to struggle to get a place to live. My dad was working for a construction company, and somehow managed to get them to build him or to allocate him a three-room apartment. It’s not the same as a three-bedroom apartment, it’s three rooms, but it was great because it was on the outskirts of Bratislava. We had lots of fun there by the Danube. When the Russians invaded the country in 1968, there were tanks around our house. There were some wheat fields just across the street, so they dug themselves in, they made some trenches. Unfortunately the wheat field never came back after that so it turned into a garbage dump. Eventually my dad built a house at the other end of the town, so we moved there.”
“My parents were not from the politically favored class. Quite the opposite. So that limited them essentially to jobs as engineers. Engineers were always needed even though you may not have been politically favored, but the country always was willing to tolerate engineers. Of course, you couldn’t say much or do much, but at least you had a chance to get the education and practice that job. So, that was fair enough, so essentially everybody in my family is engineers – my mom was a chemical engineer, my dad was a mechanical engineer, my older brother graduated in engineering, and I got my engineering degree and my younger brother.”
“My parents put us – the two of us, the older two – in a school that taught German, that had some German classes. It was kind of tolerated. The German language was one of the de facto street languages in Bratislava, at least from previous years. So there were a lot of native German speakers in Bratislava in the ‘60s and ‘70s when I went to school. And through this education, it really opened a door. Through the Austrian radio, through the Austrian television which was across the border which broadcast all the way to Bratislava, we could receive coverage, so I listened to Austrian radio all the time and the TV, that was maybe not so good, but still. So we got enough exposure to what then we thought was Western culture – nowadays you look at Austria where it’s a socialist country, but still – a lot more western than Czechoslovakia was at the time.”
“Then when I was a teenager, my dad had opportunities to get me jobs at international trade shows in Slovakia, working for Western companies who came there to exhibit their products, because there was some foreign trade between the West and communist countries. So these companies came to Czechoslovakia, they had a booth, they needed somebody who can translate, who can speak the language and help them out.”
Leaving the Country
“When I was 23, in 1983 – it was one year from graduating from technical university in Bratislava – I got myself a two week trip to Italy through a travel agency, which, for people living in Czechoslovakia, these things were fundamentally possible. Even though they were expensive, very limited, very bare bones and you couldn’t get them too often, but they were fundamentally possible. If you were an East German, then this would be completely off limits to you, but different countries there had different levels of freedom, different degrees of freedom for citizens. The former Yugoslavia were pretty liberal, Hungary was fairly liberal in terms of movement, East Germany was completely restricted, and Czechoslovakia was somewhere in between. So I took this two week trip to Italy and just never returned. I spent six months in Italy living in Rome with a Catholic priest attached to a Slovak bishop who was there, was part of the Vatican. Essentially their mission was to help refugees – at that time there was a lot of refugees in the refugee camp south of Rome – so I was helping them out visiting the refugees. So I spent six months there until I got my immigration papers to Canada.”
Return to Czechoslovakia
“First time we went there was literally a few weeks after the revolution, and I could not even believe when my dad said ‘Come back, come and visit. It’s no problem’ because when I had defected it was some kind of criminal offense by the laws of Czechoslovakia of that time, which eventually got deleted. [I said] ‘Technically the police are looking for me there, so it would be especially kind of stupid to go there, right?’ ‘No, don’t worry. It’s completely different, nobody cares. It’s completely free, everything changed.’ It was really, really hard to believe.”
“The lasting memory of that trip – apart from the fact that everything was dirt cheap because the dollar had such great buying power at that time. But the lasting memory of that trip was that Slovaks were so relaxed, and Czechs for that matter too. But people in that country were just so relaxed, so at ease. Now, I must say, that was then, and I’ve been to Slovakia several times since, and this easiness more or less is gone. I don’t see it there anymore. No doubt, it’s far, far better than it was under communism, far, far better, no doubt. But I’m just saying that there was that one period where people were just so happy, so helpful, so friendly to each other.”