Oliver Gunovsky was born in Trenčín, western Slovakia, in 1944. When he was four years old his father, Peter, left the country under the threat of arrest for his involvement in the black market, and his mother, Maria, felt pressure to move as well. Oliver lived with his grandparents, Gregor and Maria Malec, for a number of years in Trenčianske Teplice before joining his mother in Liptovský Hrádok where she was working in the restaurant industry. He remembers enjoying elementary school where he participated in sports, plays, and poetry readings and had a lot of friends. Because of his father’s illegal exit from the country, Oliver says his choice of secondary school was limited. He applied to three schools, including a military school, and was rejected from all of them. He was given a place in an engineering school in Bánovce nad Bebravou, but transferred to Ružomberok after one year to be closer to his mother. During secondary school, Oliver played many sports, and he especially excelled at cross-country skiing. Even though he had no contact with his father and, at this point, did not know his whereabouts, Oliver says he was not allowed to compete internationally for fear that he would try to leave as well.
Oliver graduated from engineering school in 1962 and worked for one year in a machinery factory before joining the army. It was at this time that he first got in contact with his father and discovered he was living in England. When he left the army in 1965, Oliver attempted to obtain a visa to visit his father, but says he was repeatedly denied. In the spring of 1968, he was issued a travel visa and left for England on August 13. Upon hearing about the Warsaw Pact invasion eight days later, Oliver decided to stay in England. His wife, whom he had married only a few months earlier, was able to join him in the fall. Oliver worked for his father, who owned a butcher shop, grocery store, and restaurant. After a short time, Oliver then found a job at a hotel. He and his wife applied for immigrant visas to several countries and were granted permission to move to Canada. They settled in Kitchener, Ontario, with their young son, also called Oliver, in 1970. In Kitchener, Oliver worked his way up the restaurant business and eventually owned the Metro Tavern, which he says was known as a schnitzel house, but also served other Central European fare, and became a gathering place for Slovaks in the area.
In 1982, Oliver and his family moved to Florida where he hoped to open another restaurant. When that plan fell through, he moved to Bethesda, Maryland, and opened a fast food schnitzel restaurant, which he sold after one year. After the Velvet Revolution, he was a founder of the American Czechoslovak Society (later the American Czech and Slovak Association), which assisted young Czechs and Slovaks who were visiting the United States to learn about western businesses, politics, and communities. In 1991, Oliver went back to Slovakia for the first time since leaving, and he continues to visit his mother there regularly. Today, Oliver lives in Washington, D.C.
“He was an avid mushroom picker. He had an eye that would see every mushroom everywhere in the forest, and while he was walking around picking the mushrooms, he started a new hobby. He started picking up pieces of branches of wood and carved them into shapes of animals, like snakes, birds, etc. And that became his sort of profession in his retirement. Then he built little chalets out of wood and pinecones, and then he progressed into carving different statues from folklife in Slovakia. The biggest was larger than life statues that he not carved, but actually chopped out of the big pieces of wood for the festival in Východná. They had a competition of folk artists, and he actually received the official folk artist title. He did many carvings for the museums, and so he became quite famous later in his life.”
“I remember we had to walk across – it had to be about five miles – through the forest and fields to a different church, not the same place where we lived. That’s the way many people went to church also, to different locations where maybe nobody knew them or something. Especially people like teachers, even some policemen, government employees, because they didn’t want people to know that they actually believe and go to church, so they would go to a different town or a different village to attend services.”
“I think the teachers at my age were still the old class of teachers that became teachers before the communist regime, and they didn’t change their style of teaching, just didn’t teach us everything they would like to. Then more and more new teachers came; they were a different style of teachers. What I remember is that those teachers were sort of not teaching as much, but they were trying to catch you doing something wrong, like why didn’t you do your homework, what is this, like punishing and punishing, where the old teachers, they would try to make you understand why you were supposed to do it.”
“There were sports clubs in the communist system. I think that’s probably the only thing, one of the couple of good things in the communist system was that they were supporting the youth, supporting financially all these clubs that my mother or other parents didn’t have to pay any money for us. So everything was paid for, travel and equipment, by the government. I was competing in cross-country skiing. In 1960, I was the second junior in Czechoslovakia, but I wasn’t allowed to go to any outside country to compete. They were always afraid that I would just try to escape and try to get to England where my father was.”
Permission to Travel
“In ’65 I came back to civilian life and right away I tried to go for vacation to England to visit with my father. When I went to the passport office, the man told me, he looked at the black book again and said ‘Ah, you’re not going anywhere, just don’t even bother.’ So every time I tried again, he told me ‘Get out of here, I told you, you’re not going anywhere,’ until the spring of 1968, when the same man says ‘Please come in and sit down. I’ll be with you in a minute.’ So I thought, ‘Uh oh, something changed, something is brewing.’ So then I got a visa and I was just married for a few months at that time, but I was so afraid that the system was going to change again, that they were going to take the travel permission away from me, that I didn’t even wait until my wife had papers ready. I just wanted to get out and go to England before somebody said ‘No, no that was wrong, you’re not going anywhere.’”
American Czechoslovak Society
“We did lots of support for young blood coming from Czechoslovakia willing to learn the western system of life and business and politics. They would come out here and didn’t know much, didn’t know anybody so we would help them to make contacts and open the doors for them, help them to attend some internships or schools. After awhile I thought my phone number was written somewhere in Vienna at the airport on the wall ‘When you come to Washington, call Oliver,’ because all of the sudden I had phone calls from complete strangers without any recommendation, calling, ‘Can you help me? Can you give me advice?’ or whatever. And I didn’t mind. I enjoyed it because I was sorry to miss the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, so this was my contribution to finally put the final nail in the coffin of communism.”