Paul Burik was born in the southern Bohemian town of České Budějovice in 1954. His father, Nicholas, was a doctor, while his mother, Vlasta, worked as a pharmacist. When Paul was still a toddler, the family moved to Prešov, in eastern Slovakia, which was where Paul’s father (who was ethnically Carpatho-Rusyn) had grown up. After nearly six years, however, the family moved back to Bohemia, first to Prčice and then Sedlčany, where Paul’s father worked as the chief surgeon in the local hospital. When Paul was still a teenager, his mother died of a terminal disease. His father worked long hours so Paul says he grew up fairly independently. In 1967 his father traveled to the United States to visit his brother (Paul’s uncle Alex) who had immigrated to Cleveland shortly after the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. Paul says his father spoke with a number of American doctors during his visit to the States, but decided to return to Czechoslovakia because, at the time, ‘things were good there.’ Following the Soviet-led invasion in 1968, however, Paul’s father suggested to him that the pair resettle in America. Paul says he looked forward to the ‘adventure’ of emigrating and agreed with his father’s suggestion.
The pair left Czechoslovakia on August 23, 1968 and spent almost three months in Vienna, Austria, where Paul attended English classes at the Berlitz language school. They lived in an apartment belonging to an Austrian physician who wanted to help Czech and Slovak doctors displaced by the invasion. Paul arrived in Cleveland on November 8, 1968 and says he was shocked at the size of the city, worrying in particular that it would prove ‘impossible to find his school’ in a town so large. He and his father spent their first couple of months living with Paul’s uncle Alex in Lakewood, Ohio, where Paul attended Harding Middle School. When Paul’s father secured a medical internship, the pair moved into an apartment provided by the hospital, where Paul says he spent a couple of ‘good, but challenging years’ as his father was so busy retraining as a doctor.
In 1972, Paul enrolled at Kent State University where he studied architecture. He spent a term in Florence, Italy, and graduated in 1977. His first job was at Robert P. Madison International, an architecture firm in Cleveland. In 1985, he became an architect for the City of Cleveland. He retired in 2010. Paul says he is particularly proud to have worked on Cleveland’s Westside Market and Hopkins Airport, as well as City Hall and the municipality’s numerous recreation centers. Paul says that when he moved to Cleveland, his uncle Alex introduced him to local Rusyn and Ukrainian groups. Over time, however, he says he has become more involved in the local Czech community, joining the Czech American Committee of Greater Cleveland (Krajanský výbor) and the local chapter of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU). He is currently president of Cleveland’s Czech Cultural Garden. Today, Paul lives in Avon, Ohio, with his wife Fran.
“I had to take piano lessons, you know, the parents insisted. And the teacher, the piano teacher, was an old boy scout. That was, of course, that was outlawed. But he had these models of cabins and the little scout things, and so we would spend half the time playing piano, and half the time playing with the scout things. So, my piano is not that good.”
“We had a sort of… Sokol was outlawed, but he [my father] was teaching a little gymnastics class that I and about a dozen boys, we would go into the old Sokol Hall and he made arrangements, he would teach us the stuff, you know, gymnastics: parallel bars, high bar, rings, floor exercises, the sort of typical stuff that the Sokols do – for several years. And I think he always believed in exercise and the whole notion of ‘in a healthy body is a healthy spirit.’ So he was doing it a little bit for himself, because he always liked to exercise and stuff, but at the same time, he put up with a dozen other kids too.”
“We had this meeting on the steps of our house, I was coming down in the morning and he was coming up, he proposed that we go and try to go to the United States, and it’s going to be challenging, but we should go. And of course, I was a 13 year old, for me it was just a big adventure. So I said yes, let’s go. And so that day he went to the hospital to do his rounds and work, and I packed whatever I deemed important, some clothing and a sleeping bag. It was kind of interesting because I still have the sleeping bag; I still have it in the car in case we get stranded in the snow. But it is amazing how that one item was sort of like the security blanket, like a little boy’s nene blanket, because we didn’t know where we were going to be. We could be sleeping on the floor of a gym some place or some kind of a camp. So we were dragging this sleeping blanket all around across the continent.”
“You need to understand that especially as a young boy like that, anything Western, anything forbidden, was idolized. Anything Western was idolized. If somebody gave us chewing gum, because it was from America it was like the hottest thing. So, when we said ‘let’s go to America,’ it was like this great adventure. To me as a young teenager, it was like, why not? Let’s do it – I didn’t have to worry about all those legalities and technicalities and potential… I knew there was danger, I knew that there was danger, that if things don’t work out it could be sort of nasty at least for him [my dad.] I was a child but… So it was sort of a quick decision, sometimes you just have to make those snap decisions.”
“Ironically, travel was complicated because the locals changed the signs. And so if you followed the road signs, you would end up in the wrong place. You really had to go by knowledge of the local area or by map. But if you came to an intersection and it said ‘Prague, this way,’ it would probably point you to the wrong place.”
“Well actually, he [Alex] was more active in the Ukrainian or the Rusyn community, so my first years until college, I was really not involved with the Czech community at all or very little. If anything, there was a Carpatho-Rusyn ski club and he was an officer and we did a lot of traveling, a lot of skiing in the wintertime. And so I was more involved in that culture. It was not until I already was married and had children, and I was taking my daughter to a gymnastics class, and there was a fellow reading a paper, a Czech paper, Nový svět. And so I said, ‘Well, he’s got to be Czech or Slovak or something,’ and he was my age, and so when the opportunity came I said hello to him, ‘Dobrý večer’ [Good evening] or something like that. And he turned out to be a local dentist, Stan Pechan, who is Slovak, Czech – he covers both areas, much like me, and we started talking and he introduced me to, he took me to a meeting of what was then the Krajanský výbor, which now is really defunct, but at the time it was the Czech and Slovak committee for the liberation of Czechoslovakia.”
“One of my colleagues at work, at Cleveland City Hall, approached me one time and said ‘Hey, you are Czech, you know there’s a Czech Cultural Garden and it’s orphaned and you know, somebody should take care of it.’ And I said. ‘What garden?’ I had no clue about the gardens. And he said ‘Come on, I’ll take you there at lunch time.’ So, we did, we took a ride to East Boulevard and MLK and drove through the gardens and saw the Czech garden and I was impressed and said ‘Yeah, well somebody kind of needs to attend to that.’ And before I knew, it kind of became my commitment to the Czech community, taking care of that. And I think we’ve been pretty successful. We’ve got some grants from the Czech Republic, we’ve got some donations from specifically the Ptak family, got some grants from the Holden Parks Trust, which is a trust which takes care of some of the parks, or specifically that park. So, we did a lot of things, restored the statues, planted new shrubs, tuck-pointed the masonry and over the years I think it’s one of the better… [We have] had virtually all of the ambassadors that were stationed in the United States come and visit and walk through the gardens.”