Pavel Paces was born in the Strašnice district of Prague in 1949. His father, Karel, owned a liquor distillery and his mother, Marie, was the office manager for the business. After the distillery was nationalized following the Communist coup, Pavel’s father became a courier for the anti-communist resistance. In October 1949, (shortly after Pavel’s birth) he was warned by a friend on the local police force of his imminent arrest and left Prague. He spent one month in hiding and then crossed the border into Germany where he stayed in a refugee camp. Pavel’s mother, meanwhile, aided two men who claimed to have met her husband in Germany and said they were traveling to Bratislava. The men were arrested by communist authorities for their illegal cross-border trips, and named Pavel’s mother as an ‘accomplice.’ She was subsequently arrested and held in Pankrác prison for two months. She was released in March 1950 and, one month later, had a guide assist her and her three sons (Pavel and his older brothers Karel and Miloslav) across the border near Cheb. They were reunited with Pavel’s father and lived in Germany for 18 months, first in refugee camps and later in Munich. The family sailed to New York City in November 1951 and settled in the Yorkville neighborhood.
Pavel says that the area where they lived was home to many Central and Eastern European immigrants, including other Czechs. Pavel’s father found work as a machinist and his mother held cleaning and janitorial jobs. His whole family was active within the local Sokol chapter – Pavel and his brothers attended gymnastics and language classes, and his parents worked as a cook and a waiter during events. The family spoke Czech at home and Pavel enjoyed attending Sokol summer camps. Today, Pavel is still active in the Czech community in New York; he is on the building committee for Sokol Hall and attends events at the Bohemian National Hall.
Pavel majored in education at NYU and became an industrial arts teacher for the Yonkers Public School district, a job which he held for 34 years. He married his wife, Vicky, in 1976 and the couple has two daughters. In 1979, they bought a house in Yorktown Heights, New York, where they still live today. Pavel first returned to the Czech Republic in 2005 when his younger daughter was studying at Charles University. He says that the trip was ‘emotional’ as he visited his family home and met his cousins for the first time. Now retired, Pavel hopes to travel to Europe more frequently.
“After ’48, he joined the underground and worked through a front firm – it was a French firm, but it was a front for the underground – and he was like a courier. In ’49, October ’49, he received information from a friend of his who was in the local police department that they would be arresting this group of spies in the underground. He left Prague in October after he got word that they were going to arrest him and he spent a month in hiding. Part of that was in Jevany in a mortuary in a cemetery for a week, where he hid out in the mortuary where my uncle would bring him food, until he was able to make his way to [České] Budějovice. [He spent] a total of a month hiding out and then he and a good friend of his made their way into Germany and he was in a camp there, and he tried to get my mother over and the three boys as soon as possible.”
“In January, my mother was visited by two gentlemen who told her that they had met my father at one of the refugee camps in Germany and that my father had sent word through them for my mother to give them money for my father. My mother said ‘I don’t have that kind of money. My husband wouldn’t ever have asked for that money’ and the guy said ‘Well, we had a letter from him but we lost it crossing the border.’ So my mother, being the charitable person that she was, gave him some money because he said he needed money to go and visit his wife in Bratislava. So she gave him some money for the train and she gave him a change of clothing and fed him, and then later that day he returned with another gentleman and again asked her for more money. She said she didn’t have any more and, with that, he said ‘Well, you will regret this decision,’ and he left.
“Next thing you know, my mother was arrested, January 25, and was detained in Pankrác in solitary confinement for two months. At that time, we didn’t know this story – when we were here in the States. My family didn’t really talk about what they went through in Czechoslovakia. My mother never spoke about it and my father very rarely spoke about it. But later, through my brother’s investigations in the archives, he found this story about the two guys who visited my mother and tried to shake her down and blackmail her. Well, instead of going to Bratislava, what they did was they went to the local bar, got drunk, and started bragging about how they go back and forth from Czechoslovakia to Germany and, naturally, there were spies there, communist spies, and they were arrested. When they were arrested, they mentioned my mother giving them aid and, as a result of that, my mother was arrested. All along we thought, prior to this story coming out, that my mother was detained there because of my father, but they had come to arrest my father the morning of October 7 in ’49 – they didn’t find him there – and my mother claimed that she had no knowledge of where my father was. That he left for work that morning and never returned. So in a way, they were not looking for her because of my father; they arrested her because she aided these two guides or blackmailers.”
“[My father] became a machinist. The first few years were rough before he was able to get a machinist job. He painted; he was a waiter; he did handy-man work; he did whatever he could. My mother was home with us; however, the first apartment that we got in New York City, we were janitors, so my mother had to clean the building while my father was at work. So there were many times when my mother would be washing the hallways on her hands and knees with a bucket and a scrub brush; my brothers relate those stories to me. Later on, when I was older, I would go with her cleaning offices, things like that. Much later, my father got my mother a job at the machine shop where he was working, and she worked in the assembly area, putting together the parts that were being manufactured there.
“But my mother worked at Sokol Hall in the kitchen, weddings, making dumplings, whatever they needed, and my father was a porter there at times. My father worked at [Bohemian] National Hall, on 73rd Street, as a waiter during affairs. My brothers did [too]. My father always had two jobs when he was working; the machine shop during the day and a waiter at night. He was a waiter at Vašata’s on 75th between First and Second [Avenues]; he was there for many years. We wound up living in that apartment later on before they retired. We bounced around Yorkville as janitorial jobs became available. We were not janitors at Vašata’s but we moved to 71st Street after 76th and we lived across the street from Sokol Hall. I became very involved there starting at the age of six, and we were the janitors there as well, until we had to move because they renovated and then we lived on Second Avenue between 73rd and 74th around the corner from National Hall. By that time, my father had been working strictly as a machinist and still working nights as a waiter. All my brothers, we all worked. I worked at the restaurants in Yorkville – Vašata, Ruc. My brother Charlie went to school. He became a pharmacist; he worked in a Czech pharmacy in Yorkville.
“Yorkville was a wonderful place to grow up. It was an area where there were ethnic groups. You had your Slovaks, your Czechs, your Hungarians, your Germans. It was like a little Central [Europe sic] there. Czech butchers, Czech bakers, Czech doctors, optometrists. It was like being home away from home for us.”
“I went to Sokol camp in Connecticut. They had a beautiful camp there, and I spent a few summers there, fortunately, to get out of the heat of the city. I had memorable occasions over there. It was a lot of fun [being] amongst other Czech immigrants, and we even had a few Hungarian boys who were there. It was a wonderful experience. Being part of Sokol, the entire organization, was a great experience.”
“My youngest daughter, the schoolteacher, when she was going to school at New Paltz, she decided to study a semester in Prague, at Charles University. So, actually, she’s the first one from my family to go back, because I didn’t go back until she was studying there. That was my first trip there. It was 2005, so that’s going to be seven years ago, and so we went to visit her. Her sister went to visit her before we did, and she came and said ‘I can’t believe you were born there and you didn’t go back yet.’ So I said to my wife ‘Ok, we’re going to go there while Jill’s studying’ and we spent two weeks there, and then I returned there again two years ago. It was an emotional trip for me, naturally.
“I got to visit Strašnice, and I got to go to Kostelec nad Černými Lesy where my cousins live. My father came from a family of butchers, so they’re all butchers. His father was a butcher, his brother was a butcher, my first cousin’s a butcher, his son’s a butcher. Naturally, during the communist years, my uncle was arrested as well. After my father left, my uncle Joe was in the uranium mines for awhile. He suffered a stroke and thank god that they released him early. But being that they were not of the Communist Party, they weren’t allowed to do certain things. [If] you were a butcher, you’re going to be a butcher. You can’t be anything other than that. Educations were stifled; they started school at a later age. So it wasn’t easy for them having stayed back. So I visited them. I went to Tehov where my mother was born. Naturally you visit the cemeteries. I went to Jevany where my father hid out in the mortuary. I saw that little hutch there that’s run down. I couldn’t imagine him spending a week there in the middle of a cemetery waiting to get out of the country.”