Vaclav Slovak was born in Šumperk in northern Moravia in 1956. He grew up in Hanušovice where his parents worked in the restaurant at the local train station; his father, Emil, managed the establishment while his mother, Libuše, was the chef. Vaclav remembers attending summer camp organized by the Pioneer youth group and participating in activities such as swimming and soccer. He also enjoyed traveling and joined his father on trips throughout the country. In the late 1960s, Vaclav says his family’s restaurant became subject to intensive searches and inventories, which led his father to decide that the family should emigrate. It was after the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968 that Vaclav says his father began making plans to leave Czechoslovakia. The Slovaks originally planned to take a vacation to Yugoslavia and ‘see what happened.’ However, the plan changed when Vaclav’s father obtained visas to Austria fairly easily and so, in late summer 1969, Vaclav and his parents traveled to Vienna.
In Vienna, the Slovaks registered with the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees. They subsequently went on vacation to Yugoslavia for a couple of weeks before returning to Vienna and living in a tent on the outskirts of the city for a short time. They were then moved to a guest house with other Czechoslovak refugees. On December 10, 1969, the Slovaks arrived in New York City and, after a few days, settled in Atlanta, Georgia. Vaclav’s parents both found employment in local restaurants and Vaclav started eighth grade. He says that his school had an English program for immigrants and that he felt comfortable with the language after six months. He attended Georgia Tech and earned a degree in electrical engineering. Shortly after graduating, in the late 1970s, Vaclav returned to Czechoslovakia for a visit. He says there were only a few people in his hometown who were not scared to talk to him. Vaclav moved to the Washington, D.C. area in 1983 and joined Sokol Washington almost immediately. He has held several leadership positions in this organization, including the posts of president and vice-president. Today, Vaclav lives in McLean, Virginia, with his Slovak wife, Lucia.
“Whenever I would ask those [questions], everybody was kind of afraid to answer them. I remember up in the attic of this railroad station, there were some old pictures of previous presidents and I remember one of them was Masaryk. And I remember asking a group of guys that were fixing the roof about how it was, and they were very neutral about whether he was good or bad. So obviously they didn’t want to get into trouble.
“I remember they were always teaching us about how great the Soviet system was, but it really did start changing in the mid-’60s and I remember when everybody was saying ‘Oh every guy from the Soviet Union is great,’ and then I remember one teacher – there was this picture with Stalin in it – and she said ‘Well, he is no longer on the good list because he had some of his own people shot.’ And that was kind of shocking because that was like the first instance of the Soviet Union not being so perfect as you were led up to believe in the third or fourth grade.”
“He was a restaurant manager and because of the central planning, all his employees would be rewarded on how much the restaurant would be producing or not producing or how many meals they would be serving. People started leaving him for another restaurant that wasn’t as productive and were getting paid more. Well, he found that out and he went to the central planning commission or where they were directing all these restaurants in his region and he said ‘Listen, how do you expect me to run the business if you don’t support me and you pay these people more somewhere else? Yet, look at what I’m doing.’ That kind of got him into trouble because he stood up and spoke up.
“Immediately after that they did an in-depth inventory. They tried to find any way to discredit him or throw him out of his position, but it seems like he was always one step ahead. What ended up happening is that he caught one of the inspectors forging a document and he had a back-up. He said he caught him and he said this was between him and the inspector and another guy and he was so mad when he saw what happened that he almost threw him out of a second story window or something like that. Well, that pushed them even further against him, they took him to court, and this started to escalate more and more. This all happened around ’67, ’68, so I think that’s when he knew that he had to leave, because they weren’t going to give up, they were not going to lose. He felt like he was going to end up in jail, so he said he had enough.”
“One of the first impressions I had of America was taking the New York subway to go to see friends – we made friends in Austria and they left about two months before us so we went to see them – and there was a robbery. It just happened right next to us, and my dad was sitting down and I was holding on to the handle and I saw these three guys push this – I guess there was a blind guy involved in the whole thing – somebody helped the blind guy and the blind guy moved away, they pushed this guy against the other door and they took everything he had and everybody ran away. My parents just weren’t looking at it so they had no clue what was going on, and I was just shaking like a leaf. I couldn’t believe something like that could happen here, so that was really scary. I told that to my dad, I said ‘We gotta get out of here, we can’t be here, they’ll kill us.’ And he didn’t believe me that something like that had happened.”
“There was a small community in Atlanta of Czechs and Slovaks and it seems like a lot of them were in the restaurant business, and there would be this one pub and everybody, after they finished work on Friday or Saturday, they would go to this pub and we would have guys that would play guitars and sing songs. It was just like camping somewhere outside, and I learned a lot of Czech songs from those guys. It was just like this one small happy island that people could go to and socialize and talk about your troubles or forget your troubles or drink your troubles away. And we had parties as well, every now and then.”
“I had American history in school, so I had no problems with any of the questions. My father got lucky because he got the same person as I did, so I told him what they asked me and he was asked a lot of the same questions so he had no problem, but boy, my mom flunked. And she was, I mean, she loved it absolutely here, so she studied so hard and made so sure that she made it past the second time. It was a great day for us, that day when we became U.S. citizens.”