Ottilia Maly was born in Nové Mesto nad Váhom, Slovakia, in 1930. As her father, Stefan, was working in the United States to support his family, Ottilia grew up with her mother, Paulina, sister, brother, and two uncles. She attended just over one year of Catholic school in Nové Mesto when her father decided to move the family to the United States because, she says, he did not want them to live through the impending war. Ottilia remembers that her mother told her not to tell anyone they were leaving. In October 1937, the Slobodníks traveled to France where they boarded a ship for New York City. Once there, they took a train to Chicago where they were met at the station by her father.
Ottilia’s family first lived in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, which she says was a significantly Slovak and Czech neighborhood. Her father, who had lost his job right around the time his family arrived in Chicago, was able to find work in a factory, while her mother worked in a Czech restaurant as a cook. Ottilia learned to speak English fairly quickly, aided by the Bohemian nuns at the school she attended, St. Procopius. Her family became active in the Slovak community, frequenting dances and picnics, and joining the Slovak League of America [Slovenská liga], Jednota, and various church groups. Ottilia also enjoyed playing the violin and attending plays and opera. She graduated from Harrison High School and got a job at Northern Trust Bank in downtown Chicago, where she worked for over 40 years.
In 1953, Ottilia married her husband, Michael Maly, who had left Slovakia in 1949 following the Communist coup.
Ottilia first traveled back to Slovakia in 1954 and says that she was ‘shielded from communism’ by her family there. On subsequent trips, however, her husband was questioned by the police because he had left the country illegally. In addition to visiting Slovakia often, Ottilia has traveled throughout Europe and she attributes these opportunities to her father, who she says made the right decision in moving his family to the United States. She currently lives in La Grange, Illinois.
“I know I was on the ship and I got seasick. We were all down in the lowest cabin, all four of us – my mother, and my sister, and my brother, and I. My brother was upstairs. All of the sudden he came down and he says ‘Come on up everybody! It’s so nice up there, you’re not going to be sick. Your head won’t hurt, come on.’ So we all went upstairs and he was the first one that was sick. Because you came down, then you went up, and he got sick. It was very funny at that time for us.”
“I had friends, maybe because in that Pilsen area [in Chicago] there was a mixture of Slovaks and Czechs, so I was able to understand them. Same thing with the nuns at St. Procopius. They were Bohemian. So they talked. What I couldn’t understand, they had to explain to me in Bohemian, and I could understand enough to get it from them, so this was good. Then when I learned my English there was no problem anymore. But I hated to lose all my friends in Slovakia. After all, you’re seven and a half, you have one grade behind you already, you think you know everybody. Anyway, we had fun and I hated to leave them. Same thing leaving my uncle behind and everything, but I was glad I was with my mother.”
“We bought a house and it was two flats. My sister lived downstairs, we lived upstairs. But it was two flats and she paid cash – $12,500 – for it. Father was amazed, in 1941. We came in 1937, in 1941, she had $12,500 cash to pay for a house.”
“We’ve got good food too, but I think ours is healthier – Slovak, much healthier. I used to think that because we didn’t eat so much meat that we had poor food. On the contrary, that was the best food what we had. Cabbage, and your bean soups, all kinds of soup. Barley, or even your sauerkraut. I didn’t like sauerkraut until I grew up, then I really liked it – and mushrooms.”
What do you think makes it healthier than American cuisine?
“It’s more vegetables I think, and beans, we eat, and that’s supposed to be some of the best stuff for you. And fruits of course – we had our own trees – I love fruit, and I loved vegetables too. Mother, if she couldn’t find me when I was a little kid in Slovakia, she’d go either in the tomatoes or the peas. And there I was, eating either the peas right off the line or the tomatoes.”
“It wasn’t my side of the family so much at all, but my husband, because he ran away in 1949, and he was in a camp in Germany, and then he came to his aunt who was in Ohio – his mother’s sister. He used different names when he was writing home because he had to be undercover all the time. So they looked at him. I mean, they really searched him, but they did not make trouble for him, they let him go. I mean, they interrogated him. They put him a room, they interrogated him, I had to wait outside. I thought, oh my goodness, will I ever see him again? But they talked to him a lot. And then one time, my husband said that the policeman was really nice – I don’t know if he gave him a cigarette in the end – they’re just doing their job sometimes. That’s their way of making life, they make it miserable for a lot of people. So not really, it was my husband that was more under scrutiny than I.”