Vladimir Pochop was born in Lázně Bělohrad in northeastern Bohemia in 1946. He grew up in the town of Nová Paka where his grandmother owned a fabric shop. When her shop was nationalized following the Communist coup in 1948, she hid part of the stock so that it would not be confiscated; however, she was found out and arrested. Vladimir’s father offered to take the punishment for her and was sent to a labor camp in the uranium mines of Jáchymov. Vladimir (who was not told where his father was) says that once he was released, he had trouble finding work and ended up working menial factory jobs for the rest of his life. Vladimir himself had trouble getting into high school and, at the age of 14, moved with his mother and stepfather to Ostrava where he attended mining school. In addition to classroom studies, Vladimir worked in the mines on the weekends. On the recommendation of the school director, he was admitted to ČVUT (Czech Technical University in Prague) and began studying electrical engineering. After two years, however, Vladimir was put into a special program for computer science. He graduated in 1969 and, the following year, married Jana Pochop, whom he knew from his home town.
Vladimir worked for a technical consulting company which he said allowed him free reign to focus on his research in geometric modeling. In 1974, he was invited to spend one year at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He received his doctorate in mathematics from Charles University in 1977. Although Vladimir was satisfied with his professional life, he says that living under communism was a struggle, as he and Jana had had trouble finding a place to live in Prague and he felt stifled by the lack of certain freedoms. In January 1980, the pair received visas to London for two weeks and, on their way home to Prague, got off the train in Munich and made their way to the American Embassy. Vladimir was questioned by U.S. military intelligence for four months. They were given asylum in Germany, Vladimir found a job at BMW and they moved into an apartment.
In 1981, the Pochops received permission to immigrate to the United States, but they had to wait eight months as Jana was pregnant. Their son Jan was born in September 1981 and, in April 1982, the Pochops flew to Atlanta, Georgia. Two weeks later, Vladimir went to California in search of a job. When he found one at a start-up tech company in Silicon Valley, his wife and son joined him and the family settled in Mountain View. Vladimir and Jana had another son, Martin, in 1984. That same year, Vladimir joined the company Autodesk and, as a chief scientist there, helped to develop AutoCAD and other products. He became an American citizen in 1989 and today holds dual citizenship. As both of their sons now live in Prague, Vladimir says that he and Jana have considered returning to the Czech Republic. Today, they live in Concord, California.
“When the Communists came to power, nobody believed that it would last. It was very unusual; it actually had never happened before. So when they confiscated all our property, my grandma – being a smart woman – decided that since this wouldn’t last she would save some of the stock somewhere else. Save it. Just believing that one year or two years after she could resume the business. Well, they found it. So she was charged with all kinds of things: subversive activity, resisting the will of the working people – as if she wasn’t working! And she was sentenced to go to prison. My father, being a good son, volunteered to go instead of her. So he did. So he went to prison on behalf of her. But when he came back, he couldn’t find any job either. So for the rest of his life he was working as a menial worker in different factories. The lowest of the lowest jobs. Just oiling different machines and wandering around.”
“I was assuming that wouldn’t be any problem because I was a very good student. I was winning all mathematical competitions and didn’t have a B in my life, but surprise, surprise, it didn’t turn out that way. Not only they didn’t accept me to any high school, they wanted to prevent me from even entering to an apprenticeship. The communists didn’t want any education for me whatsoever. But at that time, my mother divorced. She found another gentlemen who started working as a miner in Ostrava and, since he was a premier representative of the working-class in Czechoslovakia, he somehow managed to get me into a mining school in Ostrava. So instead of going to high school, I started digging coal underground and going to school during the day, which I was doing for the next four years. Actually, not for the first two years, I must say. I got underground for the first time when I was 16. But for the next two years, between 16 and 18, every other Saturday and Sunday I was working underground. Sometimes 16 hours without interruption.
“Believe it or not, the most interesting part of that school was the practice and the work I was actually doing after school, on Sundays and Saturdays. That was fascinating for somebody who is 16 years old, or 17, going down half a kilometer and spending, let’s say, six hours lying on the ground, being sandwiched between the floor and the ceiling in a space which is between 40 and 60 centimeters high, and touching something that has been lying there for millions and millions of years. So this was an unforgettable experience. Especially when you experience things like part of the ceiling falling down next to you completely and severely injuring your co-workers.”
“The director of the mining school was a very good guy. He knew how to play the game. He probably was a member of the Communist Party, but he had to. He very soon recognized that I really didn’t belong there. So when I applied for admission to ČVUT, he gave me such a good recommendation that they accepted me without the admission process. I just bypassed the admission process. Good for me, because I don’t think I would have been able to do it, having gone through this bad education in the mining school.”
“Every day in the evening, using public transportation, I’d be going to the other side of Prague, find some building in progress, stole some malta [mortar], put it into a bucket and, using public transportation again, bring it back to my apartment, and bring it all the way up 144 steps and start building. So that’s how I did it. I just brick by brick – I didn’t build much, just one short wall – but I actually installed gas, I installed electricity, water, plumbing. I built a small shower in the hall because there was a small place in the hall, and when it was finished we moved in to this one room, 16 square meters.”
“It was not just my very private, professional career, because your being a human being doesn’t consist of your work alone. It is just a role that you play in your life. Your have other roles that you play in your life, and then you have yourself apart from your roles. I felt that all the other roles and myself were violated. Like if you don’t water a plant enough, the plant doesn’t grow. So all the other aspects of my life were not growing. That’s probably the answer.”
What other aspects of your life?
“Basic freedom of speech. It may not be important for some people, but it is an important part of feeling free. Freedom of movement. When somebody tells you that you cannot cross this line and if you try, there is a bunch of machine guns that could be activated, that somehow puts a really heavy damper on your feeling free. Information, also. Maybe some people don’t need it. But the quest for knowledge, in my view, is an innate feature of human beings – at least, in me. I cannot talk about other people, but I certainly have it. In addition to a very dreadful material life.”
Munich & Asylum
“We ended up in January in London, having an exit visa and entry visa for about two weeks. The next day, we showed up at the Home Office in London and tried to apply for asylum. I thought it was a slam dunk, no problem, because I had this history of discrimination – my father, I couldn’t study, all these things. No, no. They sent us home and told us to come next week. So we came next week and the answer was no. Not only no, but they explicitly told us that if we don’t leave England as planned, they would put us on the nearest plane and ship us to Prague by force. It didn’t matter to them that I already talked to the Canadian Embassy and they promised they would accept me if I could stay in England two months. It didn’t matter to them that we were willing to go to South Africa if England permitted us to stay for a few weeks. None of these things were of an importance to the great guys in the Home Office in London. They wanted us to go home. We didn’t want to go home. So we did something else.
“Not having any money – I mean, any – we borrowed 200 pounds from a remote friend of a remote friend of ours, but he was gracious enough to lend us 200 pounds. And with this 200 pounds, we went to the German Embassy and asked for a transit visa. Just a 24-hour visa going home, claiming that we wanted to see some countryside before we ended up back in prison. We bought two tickets for 200 pounds on a train to Prague, and 4:00 in the morning, two days later, maybe a week, we stepped out of the train in Munich and let the train continue.”
“It’s not quite fair, because while forming my opinion, I was too young and inexperienced and also influenced by the circumstances I was living in and the conditions I was living under. But when you leave a country where most of the people seem to be, at least on the surface, content with everything that’s around you, you start developing a certain contempt for the people. If you cannot do anything about it, at least talk about it or at least admit or at least express some dissatisfaction. Don’t behave like sheep all the time, 24/7. Consequently, when I left I didn’t have a chance to improve this opinion, but I must admit that I changed. The events in ’89 obviously changed something, and having lived in several countries after that, and having acquired experience with other nationalities, I realize that the Czechs are not that bad after all.”