Vera Dobrovolny was born in Prague in 1938. Her father Jan worked as a quality controller for Škoda during WWII and then as a technician at Správa spojů (the state-owned telecommunications company). Her mother Aloisie, meanwhile, worked as a supervisor at a dorm for student nurses in the capital. Vera spent a part of WWII being raised by her aunts, as her mother was hospitalized following the birth of her younger brother. He was named Vladimír, which was (like Věra) deliberately Russian-sounding, as both of her parents were, she says, ardent Pan-Slavists. Towards the end of WWII, Vera’s family moved out of Prague to live in their summer house near Mokropsy, where she remembers attending school in the corner of a local pub, as the village schoolhouse was occupied by German troops.
Vera attended commercial academy in Prague and then worked for Ferromet, a steel export company. In 1955, she met her husband, Pierre Dobrovolny, at a dance. The pair were married in 1958 and have two children, Eva and Lucie. Vera had been raised by parents who strongly believed in building socialism, but says her relationship with Pierre ‘spoiled her’ ideologically. She was repeatedly denied promotion in her job, which she says was most likely due to her relationship with Pierre. In 1968, Vera was finally promoted and says her family enjoyed a degree of financial stability. She refers to this time as one of the happiest in her life.
Following the Warsaw Pact Invasion, in 1969, Vera and Pierre decided to leave Czechoslovakia. They traveled to Vienna in the summer, where they applied for visas to the United States and registered at the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees. Their youngest child Lucie, however, fell extremely ill after a couple of days, and so the family decided to return to Prague and seek medical assistance. After a couple of months, on August 21, 1969, Vera and Pierre again left Czechoslovakia. They traveled with their children to Yugoslavia from which they crossed into Austria without the correct paperwork; Pierre says the border guards did not care. The family spent about one month in Traiskirchen refugee camp near Vienna before being sent to stay in Bad Kreuzen. They arrived in America in December 1969. Vera says her first impressions of the United States were less than flattering and did not live up to the expectations she had formed from films and books. The family first lived in a rented apartment in Cicero before settling in Hawthorn Woods, Illinois. Vera worked as an accountant for CSA Fraternal Life before taking a job at Bosch, where she remained for 26 years. She has played active roles in the Czechoslovak National Council of America (CNCA) and the Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) in Chicago. She makes frequent trips to the Czech Republic and has taken her grandchildren to Prague to show them where she was raised.
“Actually, I had two aunts, so one was working and the other was supposed to take care of me. But she was partially deaf, so when there was an air raid announced, all children were sent home, and parents came – we were in the first grade, so all the parents came to pick them up – but because my aunt couldn’t hear, nobody picked me up. So I went home by myself. But it was only like two blocks, so it wasn’t so bad. And there was another boy on my street, in my school, and also nobody came for him. So we walked together and, you know, it was an eerie feeling because there was nobody, nothing. Only those airplanes overhead. And I remember it until today. And that bad feeling came in ’68 when Russians occupied Czechoslovakia, and I was home again alone because my daughter was born, and again nothing – nobody around, quiet and just those airplanes. And then I forgot about it, and then September 11 here, when they started to guard those cities – airplanes over Chicago – it came again!”
Soup and Soap
“I remember we got, when I was living with my aunts, they bought some beef bones, and we had soup on Sunday, and on Monday they mixed it with some chemicals or whatever and they made soap, because there was a shortage of soap. And it did not smell too good. It was like brown little bricks. We didn’t have to use it for baths but for washing clothes and stuff like that.”
That was an example of making the most of everything you had?
“Yeah, we ate lots of potatoes and plums. We made plum jam, it was povidla in Czech. And stuff like that. Actually I was malnourished; I had those bumps behind my ears. But it was mainly because I didn’t want to eat.”
“Sixty-eight – I said it was the last time I was quite happy. Because I got my promotion, I was pregnant finally after ten years, between the two of us, we made enough money so that we could get furniture for our apartment. We even had enough money to buy a car. It was exactly ’68 – I remember it because you could not go like here to some place and buy the car, you had to put up the money first, and then wait, and wait and wait. And after years, they ask you if you want your car beige or green. But, another option was to get a used car. And I still remember we went to look at a used white Simca somewhere. And we sent Eva to summer camp, she was ten years old, we went to look at that car and where my parents live, behind them, there are beautiful gardens. Have you ever been in Prague? So they live under Petřín hill, close to that funicular. And we were walking through those gardens, and it was actually really nice, relaxing, beautiful, and I felt so good. And my parents were sitting in the park, so we were talking to them. And it was a Sunday or Saturday, and a few days later, Russians came.”
Shortage of Food
“I remember standing in the line, because suddenly there was… everybody tried to get some supplies, some food, and they sent the Russian Army without any provisions. They told them ‘There is a contra-revolution’, and that they will find food and everything when they went to the town. And there was no food for Russians, nobody wanted to give them anything. And I was standing in the line with my mother to get some potatoes again, and they were in the street, all those tanks going, and I was crying and my brave mum said ‘Don’t cry! Don’t show it to them!’ Then again the next day I was sitting on a bench in the park looking at the bakery, waiting for bread. Because by that time the Russians got smart and they actually ambushed the delivery guys. So it was very important to get there first.”
Impressions of America
“We came from Vienna, from Europe, where everything was like nice and clean and everybody was dressed-up, civilized. And we ended up at JFK at some time of reconstruction and hippies. And there were hippies all over the floor, all over. And somehow I was still in my mind on vacation, until I saw what was around me. So I started to cry, what did I do?”
Did you start to have second thoughts about the United States when you saw that?
“Definitely! I definitely did. Those friends like that [engineer] Hana, they found us an apartment – besides a job for him they found us an apartment in Cicero. And they even found some second hand furniture and everything. They were waiting for us at the airport at O’Hare. So, it was really nice, but when I saw it, it wasn’t the America we knew from movies and books. Those houses and everything in Cicero – it was like, I was deeply, deeply disappointed. To me, America was behind.”