Otakara Safertal was born in Kladno, central Bohemia, in 1947. For a number of years, Otakara lived with her grandparents in the village of Velké Přítočno, as both her parents worked in Prague. Her father, Lubomir, was in charge of a bakery, while her mother, Miroslava, managed a small patisserie and also helped at the bakery. Otakara remembers frequent visits from her parents. She attended kindergarten in Velké Přítočno, but upon starting first grade, she joined her parents and sister, Ivana, in Prague. As a young girl, Otakara remembers participating in Sokol and religious classes which were eventually discontinued. She excelled at badminton and as a teenager travelled throughout Czechoslovakia to play. After finishing school, Otakara applied to economics school in Prague; she says she was rejected because she ‘didn’t have a very good background.’ After one year training to be a salesperson in a drugstore, Otakara was accepted to economics school. She graduated in 1967 and began working for Czechoslovak State Airlines (CSA) as a ground hostess. She married her husband, Frank Safertal, that same year. Otakara remembers the Prague Spring, saying that the mood of the country changed and that in particular, the ‘youth was very excited about the future of the country.’ At that time, Otakara and her husband were part of a theatre group that performed poetry and plays around the city.
Otakara was working an overnight shift at the airport during the Soviet-led invasion on August 21, 1968. Three days later, she received a visa from the Austrian embassy and, with her husband, left Czechoslovakia on August 31. In Vienna, the Safertals stayed in a refugee camp for about three weeks before an infestation at the camp forced them to find a private apartment for the remainder of their stay. On October 4, Otakara boarded a plane for Canada. She says that the Canadian government at that time was very accommodating to Czechs and Slovaks, expediting the immigration process, providing English language classes, and offering job placement assistance. For ten years, Otakara managed the data processing department at the First National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) in Toronto. She stopped working after her two daughters were born, but later started her own business doing bookkeeping for small companies. Frank’s job in telecommunications led to the family spending time in Saudi Arabia and Calgary, and in 1997, Otakara and Frank moved to the Washington, D.C. area. Otakara has maintained a connection to her Czech culture, primarily through the theatre groups she has been involved in. She started a Czech preschool in Calgary for her grandchildren, and is also an active member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Science (SVU). She lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband.
“I remember at one point in time, he wanted to import some Jewish cookies and things that were used for Sabbath and so on from Slovakia, and he did, and he got into trouble selling it, because it was not something on the government list. It was a constant struggle – him trying to improve the business and the government saying ‘These are the regulations and you can’t do that.’”
“The warning signs were there, but I think that people were just optimistic and didn’t want to accept the fact that the Russians would invade. I think that people were ready; their dreams were just great and I don’t think that the people really wanted a drastic change. They just wanted to live in a country that would be more free, and people would be able to travel, which in 1967 it was already happening. Just before the invasion in July, that was the first we left the country to Austria. It was sort of a family holiday. My parents and my husband, we went to Austria and came back. We were looking forward to going back [home], we had no reservations, and it was just a time that everybody was very hopeful, and all of the sudden it just crashed. People’s dreams crashed.”
“At that time, it was Prime Minister Trudeau who was the Canadian prime minister and he, on the intervention of the Czech emigrants, there was a special status for the Czech emigrants, that they could basically leave immediately. He gave us a special status. We went through the immigration process, but they expedited it. So we came to Austria at the end of August, and on October 4th, we were already on a plane to go to Canada.”
“It was the government that basically was taking care of us, the Canadian government. They had an excellent plan how to integrate us, and we were going to school for six months, either to improve or to learn English. For me, it was improving because I spoke English, but for my husband he had to start from scratch. They opened a school, it was called Brooklin High School and we used to go to school from midnight until about 3:00 in the morning. There were about 500 of us in the school, and it was an excellent program, and after six months, almost everybody was able to start looking for a job.”
“We also got involved with some of the people that came and started a new theatre group, and we were part of the theatre group for about 15 years. That theatre group in Toronto still continues. It’s in the 40th year of existence, and it was just an opportunity for us to stay close with our countrymen and promote Czech culture in the city. We put on about four or five plays a year, and it was a good outlet for people to gather friends and also to give something to the community.”
“I took my two daughters, and it was very emotional. I was very happy to see the family, but I was also very anxious to leave because I felt that I was not sure whether they would shut the doors for me and I would not be able to go back. I loved my life outside and did intend to stay in Czech Republic, so I had nightmares when I was there that I won’t be able to go back. It was mixed feelings – feelings that I was glad to see the family, but also a feeling that I did not belong there.”