Monica Rokus was born in Košice, eastern Slovakia, in January 1950. Her father, Jan, worked as an architect for the firm Stavoprojekt and then for the city of Košice, as the assistant to the municipal architect. Monica’s mother, Eudoxia, meanwhile stayed at home raising her and her older brother, Paul. At home the family spoke Hungarian and Slovak. Monica attended the Slovak-language Kováčska Street gymnázium and, as a keen gymnast, competed with the club Lokomotiva Košice in her spare time. Upon graduation in 1968, she had plans to study in Bratislava at Comenius University’s Sports Faculty.
In late August of that year, however, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, prompting Monica’s father to flee the country and make plans for the rest of his family to resettle with him in America. The Gabrinys had already considered emigrating to the United States in 1967, but had returned to Košice on what Monica says was her insistence in particular. This time, Monica’s father left for Yugoslavia with a friend and told the rest of the family to wait for a signal before boarding a train bound for Novi Sad. When that signal came in early September, Monica traveled with her mother and brother to join her father in Yugoslavia. The family then contacted a friend in Alexandria, Virginia – Dr. Laszlo Csatary – who helped them come to America in October 1968. Dr. Csatary helped Monica’s father secure a job at a Washington, D.C. architecture firm.
Monica’s first job in the U.S. was at a kindergarten run by an acquaintance of Dr. Csatary. She stayed there for nearly one year before one of her father’s colleagues saw her drawings pinned up at home and helped her find a job at a graphics studio. In 1970 Monica also signed up as a foreign student at Georgetown University. She married another Slovak émigré and the couple had three children, who learned Slovak at home and through language classes at Sokol Washington. Today, Monica continues to work as a graphic designer and volunteers her services to the local chapter of Sokol and the Slovak Embassy.
“We were speaking Slovak and Hungarian equally. My mum spoke Hungarian to us and my father spoke Slovak to us, and my grandmother spoke German to us, so it seemed like chaos for outsiders, because not everybody had that, but a lot of families in Košice spoke Hungarian and Slovak because that was… So when I was asked ‘What’s your mother tongue?’ I would say ‘Oh, my mother tongue is Hungarian and my father tongue is Slovak and my grandmother tongue is German. It was actually Schwaebisch, so she taught us how to write in that. I forgot all my German as I learned English though.”
“See, my uncle was in Siberia, my mother’s youngest brother was in Siberia for eight years, and I remember when he came home in 1954. And that was, I mean, that was horrendous and I listened to him for hours and hours on end of how they were treated in Siberia. He left as a 17 year old, they took him from the street as a 17 year old, and he came back in 1954, I remember him, I’ll never forget, and he looked like an old man. He had grey hair as a twenty-some year old. So, it was a very painful thing in the family to discuss because you couldn’t discuss it, you couldn’t discuss it, because he was so scared, having lived through it. Not until we were older, when I went back [in 1978] did I talk to him and he was telling us stories that were… just pretty awful.
“He was a 17 year old what was called Levente. They were training with – this is the story I was told – they were training with wooden guns, and the Russians took them, took these, it was an organization of young boys that were not army trained yet, because they were too young. And he was in the archipelago, in Siberia for eight years in captivity. And they let a few of them go and said ‘Here, go,’ and just his trip from Siberia with no means, with one long coat and a bag, you know, getting on trains illegally, and being thrown out of trains… because they were free to go, but they had no means of getting there.”
“It had to have been like ’58 or… ’58-ish. And my father and my mother went for a walk to the park and didn’t come back, like, for hours. And because our aunt lived with us, we weren’t left alone, but we were waiting and waiting and saying ‘Where are they?’ And then my aunt came in and my grandfather came in and you know, they were kind of calming us down and said ‘Well mummy and dad are not coming home’. Well, they were arrested in the park in Košice, my father was taking pictures of my mother. It was a nice spring day – spring or fall day – I know it was. And he had a camera from Germany, a little, tiny, 36mm, you which… we had the big Flexaret 6 x 9. And this was this little new camera which his friend Laco, who was then the head architect, brought from Germany, from East Germany, I’m pretty sure. And it had the kinofilm, the 35mm.
“So he obviously used it, tried to take pictures of my mother whom he obviously loved and thought she was hot. So they arrested them for taking pictures, and later on we found out what happened, but they were not home for like three days. And I mean, within this time, there were these police officers, they were in civil clothing, and raided our apartment. And they took every camera we had, which was this big Flexaret and another 8mm movie camera, because my father loved doing that. They took all of that, all the film, all the negatives, everything that was in the cabinet, they took everything. Because they were spying? I don’t know…
“Well it turned out that they arrested them until they cleared all the films and all the, you know, camera equipment that they weren’t spies and all the pictures on it obviously got destroyed, because they didn’t get them back. So the film from that little camera, however, they pulled that out, and they didn’t know what to do with it. Oh, it was color film too, imagine that, in the ’50s. And they brought out to my dad a 6 x 9 film and said ‘What are these –xs here?’ And he said ‘That is not from my camera! What are you, crazy? This is from a big one, right, it won’t even fit in that!’ Boom! So they got beaten. And my father had bruises and my mother had, you know… they were not allowed to talk. They were sitting together and they were not allowed to talk. And they were jailed for three days, to find out that they were spies, they had nothing on them, obviously. But here was the thing; he was taking pictures in an area that was secret. He said ‘What is secret about this?’ Because there were no signs saying ‘you may not’, you know how you have signs saying ‘No photography’ or something. Nothing was marked. It was unmarked but he should have known that down that park, at the end of the park, in the middle of the park, was the police station. And that was the secret. I don’t think they ever found out what was secret.”
“When I was graduating gymnázium, that was 1968 – June 4, 1968 – the day that Bobby Kennedy got shot, I remember hearing that on the news when I was walking in for my exam. And what had happened in 1968, In January of ’68, you know, The Prague Spring, Russian became non-mandatory to take as an exam in maturita [the school leaver’s certificate].
“So we had Slovak, Russian, history… oh, and Latin, and then a selective, so I took German as a selective. Well, then Russian became non-mandatory and I said ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to graduate? That’s all I know!’ So, I took it as a selective. And I thought, well, there’ll be a bunch of us. No one. No one in the whole gymnázium graduated in Russian as an elective. I was so embarrassed, because there was so much animosity towards Russian. But I did not carry the animosity to the language, because I loved the language, you know, Pushkin and Dostoevsky and all that, I used to read it in Russian. So I loved it, I loved the language. And I loved Hungarian, so the animosities that were, such as they were – I was not affected by them, if you will. A lot of people tried to forget the language, intentionally, they worked on it. And it worked – after a few years, they did forget.”
“She also told me not to tell anyone, just one close friend, and so all my closest 30 friends came to say goodbye to the train station. But, what I may add, everybody was so loose about this, everybody was so bitter about what had happened, everybody was just so upset that even on the borders people knew we were not coming back but they were like ‘Good luck, have a good life.’ That was what they said. But my worst memories were prior to leaving when I knew we were leaving. You know, we were in towns and there were all these tanks and shootings, because we had a curfew, like at 6:00 or 7:00, I’m not sure what it was. But there were all these tanks, and in Kosice with all these tanks the cobblestones, I mean they were all ripped up from the tanks, horrible, horrible, horrible. Rude, the soldiers were pretty rude to us, because we were talking, saying ‘What are you doing here?’ Some of them didn’t even know they were not in their own country, some had children in the tanks. Yeah – because the Russians were taken from wherever they were, they were called in to ‘save Slovakia, or Czechoslovakia, from capitalism’. So they came to save us. It was horrible, it was horrible.”
“I was the women’s, I was the náčelníčka [leader] of the women’s group. We created a Czechoslovak school with a couple of friends and we were teaching, a couple of women were teaching Slovak and Czech to our American children, and I was teaching gymnastics. And I think it was once a week, we dragged our kids there to learn Slovak. But I mean all my kids speak Slovak, but it’s spoken, so they learned to write and read and they hated going there because who wants to go to school after school? But they learned some, and we had these events where they were dancing. There was a very active lady by the name of Lucia Maruska Levandis, very talented, she was making kroje, so we made those for the kids. I mean I helped her, she made most of it. The events that were organized for children, they were like Mikulášska and they were Sokol and SVU and all the organizations so… We were pretty active in all of those.”