Vilma Rychlik was born in Zubří, Moravia in 1952. She grew up in Rožnov pod Radhoštěm with her father, Vilém, an electrician, her mother, Zdeňka, and her brother, Tomáš. When she was six years old, Vilma’s father was sent by his employer to China for one year. The rest of the family joined him for six months; however, Vilma says she did not get to enjoy China because she was hospitalized for most of the trip. She remembers her childhood as very free and simple. Vilma says that once a week, she would help her grandmother in Zubří, from whom she learned to bake, sew, and knit. At school, she was a good student and enjoyed most subjects, but she was especially fond of chemistry, as she loved her teacher. When it was time for Vilma to go to high school, she hoped to attend medical school, but realized she would not be accepted. Instead, her parents convinced her to attend a technical school focused on construction. Although she wanted to be in the architecture program, she was placed in the plumbing and piping program and eventually graduated with honors.
Upon graduating, Vilma had difficulty finding a job in her field and settled for working at TESLA as an elementary draftsman. Also at this time, Vilma married her husband, Bob Rychlik. They had two sons, Mark in 1972 and Bobby in 1974. Vilma recalls that the first few years with their sons were difficult, as they both were working and did not have child care. Vilma was also unhappy with her job, as it was very easy and she was not working in the field she had studied. She tried many times to secure a better position, but says that she was not successful because of her undesirable political background. Vilma was finally given a position as a materials accountant in the construction department of TESLA and was able to work her way up as a utility pipe designer, eventually becoming a specialist on reverse osmosis systems. Although she was frustrated with the obstacles in her professional life, Vilma recalls day-to-day life being very pleasant in Czechoslovakia. Her sons took music and art lessons and the family regularly went on camping and biking trips. Vilma says that she had to be resourceful and learn to make the best out of what was available.
In August 1983, Bob was able to secure travel visas to Yugoslavia for the whole family. Once there, the Rychliks made their way to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Belgrade. After an interview and a six-week wait, Vilma and her family were given papers allowing them to leave Yugoslavia and enter Austria. They spent about seven months in refugee camps in Traiskirchen and Ramsau; in Ramsau they lived in a guesthouse (with a number of other refugee families) and both Vilma and Bob found jobs. Although Bob received asylum status and they could have stayed in Austria, they decided to go to the United States. The family arrived in Baltimore on May 17, 1984, and Vilma found a job shortly after as a sprinkler system designer. Even though she took English classes at a community college, she says that it was difficult for her to learn English, as the family spoke Czech at home so that the boys would not forget the language. Vilma says that she was very proud when they received American citizenship in 1990 and does not regret their decision to leave. Today, she lives with Bob in Mount Airy, Maryland.
“I was a straight-A student, and at that time I was 14 and I was firmly decided that I wanted to go and study medicine, I wanted to go to medical school. Then it suddenly became a problem that my father and mother were not members of the Communist Party. Actually, my father hated the regime back then and he wouldn’t keep his mouth shut, so all of that was already part of my secret profile, that I was coming from a family that were not loyal communists. That meant the schools of my choice were closed to me, same like to my husband. In Czechoslovakia there was no tendency at the time just to be pretty and marry some guy who has a good profession, [and] he’ll take care of you. Over there, both needed to have an income and career, even women. So it was necessary that I would have any education possible, doesn’t matter whether I like it or not. So the opportunity arose that medical school was closed for me. I would not be accepted even though I had good grades.
“We had to select a school where I would have a chance to get in to, and at that time there was a tendency in technical schools to want more girls. There was this construction school, architectural school which had two parts – architectural part and plumbing part, like piping in the buildings, heating systems, water supply, sewage and all that. So my parents convince me. They said ‘You have no other choice, you need to go to this school,’ and I didn’t like it. My father played on that I liked to design and said ‘Well, you’ll be designing lobbies, interiors of buildings,’ and that sounded nice to me, so I said ok. So I did tests, I was accepted, I passed the tests. I wanted to be in the architectural class; of course I ended up in the plumbing class. There were two plumbing classes and one architectural. Again, the architectural class was for special people, people which had green at the time. So I got these mechanics and physics, all these technical books, brought it home, realized what I was up to and I cried. And my father said ‘Well, you have to have a maturita exam, you have to have any possible education because you have to have some profession, and you have to fight. You are a good student.’ So I did.”
“We would do lots of trips, short trips, because in Czechoslovakia at the time, normal people didn’t have a car. Gasoline was very expensive and it simply didn’t fit your budget to have a car. You had to live within a smaller scale, with biking distance. So the boys had small bikes, we had bikes, we used to do bike trips. We used to go to the woods and do bonfires and fry the sausages, so as far as that, the childhood the boys had was very nice. Also, when they were older, they would go out and for a half day I wouldn’t know where they were. They would just come for dinner, and I would have a peaceful time to make dinner for them. In a way, we lived through very simple and happy socialistic years. We didn’t have all these luxuries young people and everybody has here, but you really don’t need them for a normal, happy life. You can do with less and still be happy.”
“You could buy material cheaper at the time, and if you made stuff yourself, you could do something modern, something upgraded, very nice, special, nobody else had it. So that’s how I used to dress because I had a knitting machine and a sewing machine, and I was dressing up myself and my family, too. It was funny, my husband would bring me from the factory these pieces of cloth, like squarish cloth in pieces. A couple of them were the same color, so I sewed a shirt for my boys, and I decorated it a little bit and they had a free shirt. It was free material, right. It was stolen in socialism in the factory. Also, I could go to a secondhand shop and bought fabric which couldn’t be cheaper, or pieces of fabric, but you could put them together and do nice designs and I used to sew jackets. Actually, I have a few things here just for memory, just for nostalgia.”
If you were making things that were different than anybody else, that was important to you.
“It was because I was a woman who took after my mother, I liked to dress nicely. If I had something done myself and I wore it and somebody said ‘Oh this is nice, where did you get it?’ I could say ‘Well, I did it myself.’ It was something extra, it had more value, I was more proud of it.”
“The problem was still that we both had to work and we couldn’t get kindergarten. So we had to change the shifts. And one of us would be with the kids in the morning, then would bring the kids to the factory entry, waiting when the other one was coming out, he would grab the kids, the other one would go to work. And that’s how we lived for two years. We were still trying hard to get kindergarten. I think after two years or two and a half years we finally got it, but that was a very, very difficult life.”
“Me, as a young girl, I went to visit my uncle in West Germany with my father. So I was aware about how it looked outside. I was not fooled by socialistic propaganda, that things in the west are bad, because that was not true. They lived much happier and easier lives than we were. So I knew I would love to go out, but I didn’t realize when Bob was studying English that maybe he was already planning something like that, because I thought he was studying English because he loved all these folk songs, you know, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, and he was always in contact with the western side through music. So when he told me that we got tickets to Yugoslavia, and then we will not go back, I instantly agreed.”
“We went to that office without the kids and they always asked us ‘Do you have money?’ We said ‘Yes;’ they said ‘Come tomorrow.’ We came tomorrow, and the same thing. Then I realized it led nowhere and meanwhile, some other people were accepted. So I said to my husband, ‘Hey, we’ll take the boys, baggage, everything what we have, we’ll stay in that waiting room, we won’t leave until they take us.’ So that’s what we did, and they threatened us. They said ‘We will call the Czech embassy,’ and I started to cry. I run into the office and I was crying, and Bob ran after me and he was saying that we were persecuted, so then finally they gave us the interview. Both of us had to write reasons [why we should be accepted as refugees]. We didn’t write some horrific reasons, we wrote reasons why we escaped – all those reasons that I told you – these little ones, one after another one, but in a row, and added up, your life becomes impossible there. And you realized, ok we suffered because of our parents, because our parents were not politically correct, they were not communists. But I don’t want my sons, my bright kids to work for communists. They would not go to school like we could not. So, we were accepted.”
“Until we left, everywhere I went on the bike, in a skirt, no hardhats, never fell, never had an accident, all these years, all the time on a bike, my kids, my husband. Here when I see those bikers, I just have to laugh. All these helmets, all these special clothing for hundreds of dollars, and then in order to bike, you have to put your bike on the car, drive somewhere that you do biking just for the sake of biking. For me, biking was a way of life. I went to the market with my bike, I went with my boys on my bike when they were little, later on they had their bikes. So, that’s the one thing which I miss here, the biking.”