Susan Mikula was born in Bratislava in 1943. Her father, Jozef, was very involved in the Tiso government in the First Slovak Republic and, Susan says, left Czechoslovakia following WWII. She moved with her mother, Edita, and sister, Katherine, to her mother’s native Ružomberok at this time. Abroad, Susan’s father worked for the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), gathering information on communist activity in Czechoslovakia. Jozef was also a leading figure in the Slovak resistance, heading the underground group Biela légia [White Legion]. As a result of his activities, in 1949, Susan’s mother was arrested and held in prison for three days. After her release, Susan’s mother decided to escape with her daughters. Aided by the Biela légia, Susan and her family crossed the Morava River into Austria in November 1949. They were reunited with Susan’s father in Vienna. This was the first time that Susan had seen her father in close to five years. They stayed in Salzburg for three months, and then spent one month in a refugee camp at Bremerhaven. Sponsored by the CIC, Susan’s family arrived in Milwaukee in the spring of 1950 where they were warmly welcomed by the Slovak community.
After two years in Milwaukee, her family moved to Detroit. Susan says she had a very Slovak upbringing and remembers speaking Slovak at school and church. She attended the University of Detroit for her undergraduate degree, and then Syracuse University for her doctorate in East European history. Susan traveled to Bratislava in 1969 while writing her dissertation on Milan Hodža, and remembers the tense atmosphere following the Warsaw Pact invasion. Now, Susan lives in Chicago and is a professor of history at Benedictine University. One of her specialties is Slovak politics. Susan regularly returns to Slovakia and has kept in close contact with her family there. She says she still strongly identifies with her Slovak heritage and has considered retiring in Bratislava.
“My father, who by that time had been working with the U.S. Army quite a while, had set up an underground, once the communists took over after ’48, they set up an underground, an organization called the Biela légia – the White Legion, whose purpose was anti-communist activities. They were going to try to broadcast into the Czech and Slovak territories, they were going to try to get people out, they were thinking about writing pamphlets and anti-communist literature to be distributed. So they had this active underground and once the communists took over, the underground kind of kicked in.”
“The Communists then arrested her in the summer of 1949. They took her into prison, they kept her in prison. They didn’t torture her, but they threatened torture. They kept her awake for three nights and three days, they would use sleep deprivation, they would use threats against her children, they would touch her skin with razor blades and say ‘You have to tell us this information.’ They were asking her to actually name some people, and, in her confused state, after a few days – after three days and three nights of this – she did name one man, who then, when they told her stand there and then to turn around, she heard a wheelchair coming in and this man was beaten so badly, but he still looked at my mother and denied that he knew her. But, of course she had identified him and that was enough. Even though she didn’t know politics, it wasn’t political in her mind, nevertheless, the association with us was enough.”
Adjusting to America
“I teach at a university, and my students believe kind of ‘the American ideal’ that you can come to America and you can make it – anybody can make it. And I use my story to kind of say yes, and no. Yes, because we came with two suitcases, nothing. My father worked in a factory for a while but then got a job in a company, and eventually – we moved to Detroit two years after we came to Milwaukee – and my dad joined Massey Ferguson, an international corporation and he was Chief Financial Officer at the end for Massey Ferguson in the United States, a branch of it. So yes, the adjustment was difficult, but not impossible. On the other hand, when I tell my students that and they think this validates the American myth, I say, “But you might think a couple things.” We didn’t come as poor refugees. We came as educated people. My father was fluent in English, he had a doctor of law degree. So it’s easier to make it, especially if you know the English.
“It was much harder for my mother. When she came to America, she literally did not know how to cook – she had had cooks. She literally did not know how to clean, and she went to become a cleaning lady in a department store. And she owned only two dresses when she came, one of which was hand sewn for her, navy blue with white lace, and she went to clean in that dress because that’s all she had. So it was very hard for her. I’m very proud of my mother that she learned to cook, that she learned to do all these things because she was forced to.”
“I didn’t get a chance to go back until 1965 and for a very short trip, and everyone was really scared. They had me stay in a hotel; nobody wanted me to stay in their house. My older cousin had married an army doctor; he left town so that he wasn’t even anywhere near the fact that this American escapee was in Bratislava, so that his status in the Army wouldn’t be contaminated by being with me.”
“I had a grant from the university to research my dissertation and I arrived in May of 1969, spent five months there. So I experienced not the Prague Spring, but the undoing of the Spring by the following year. I arrived in May, there were still signs of some freedom. On every building in Bratislava was štyri-dve, 4-2, because that was the score that the Czechoslovak team beat the Russians in the World Hockey tournament [1968 Olympics/World Hockey Championships]. And every wall in Bratislava had 4-2, you know, the kind of subtle protest that people were doing. They couldn’t protest anymore, the army was still there, the Soviet tanks were still there, but 4-2 on every wall.
“Over the summer you could see it slowly progressing towards more and more control. I worked in the archives, and we would sit and talk politics in May and June, and by July, as you’re getting closer to the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion, every one of the archivists would come up to me and say, ‘It’s ok to talk politics with me, but maybe we better not in a group.’ And the tragedy was that everyone said that. So none of them was a police spy, but they couldn’t be sure. That system totally undermined any sense of trust you had between people. And so you could see that. And as the anniversary approached, two, three days before, you of course had flowers everywhere – a couple of the people had been killed in Bratislava and then some in Prague. And then on the day of the anniversary of the invasion, a huge silent crowd gathered in the main square in Bratislava, and the soldiers were there with guns and tanks. And I was standing to the side and my cousin Igor came up and he grabbed me and he pulled me out of there, and he said ‘They’re broadcasting on Slovak radio that all these demonstrations are the work of foreign students. You’ve got a foreign student passport here, get the hell out of here.’ So he pulled me out of there, because that’s what they were blaming the people’s protests on – foreign students.”
Changes in Slovakia
“McDonald’s. Come on, I knew communism ended when there was a McDonald’s in both Praha [Prague] and Bratislava. This had really changed. What particularly impressed me, last summer when I was there, I did an experiment. So sometimes I would pretend I didn’t know Slovak and just try English. Every young person speaks English. There was virtually no place that I went in Prague or in Bratislava where, if I pretended I didn’t know any Slovak, I couldn’t get help in English. If not the actual person who was serving me, then somebody would call over. And so, the presence of a much more international culture, the young people feeling free to go everywhere. The children of my cousins who are in their twenties and thirties, they’ll hop to Barcelona for the weekend. For my cousin’s generation who grew up under communism and couldn’t get to Vienna, the idea of hopping to Barcelona…the young people don’t know that at all. It’s a very cosmopolitan, to me, very European culture now. Very much part of Europe.”