Zdenka Hauner-Manley was born in Prague in 1954. She lived in the neighborhoods of Vinohrady and Zizkov with her parents and older brother. Zdenka’s mother, a Prague native, worked as an accountant while her father, who had been born in Prague and grew up in Hradec Kralove, was an economist for the Ministry of Agriculture. Although it hampered his professional ambitions, Zdenka’s father refused to join the Communist Party. Zdenka says that she ‘led an interesting cultural life’ with her family in Prague as they often went to the theatre, the opera, and historic sites. She also fondly recalls traveling abroad with her family to nearby countries like Bulgaria, East Germany and Yugoslavia.
Zdenka attended gymnázium and says that her high school experience was ‘great’ as she met a group of friends who were politically like-minded and enjoyed similar activities. She took private German and English language lessons as well. Following high school, Zdenka studied dentistry at medical school of Charles University. In 1976, she traveled throughout western Europe, an experience which led her to realize how isolated she and her country mates were from the rest of the world. On a subsequent trip to Switzerland, Zdenka considered not returning to Czechoslovakia; however, she decided return in order to finish medical school. She graduated and began working as a dentist.
In 1980, Zdenka met George Hauner, and the pair decided to marry and leave the country. Zdenka says that George shared her viewpoint that the communist system was ‘insane,’ and they both had career aspirations that could not be realized in Czechoslovakia. They married in January 1981 and, as they both had visas for a short trip to Austria, left the country the following month. After three months in a refugee boarding house, Zdenka and George arrived in New York City, assisted by the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees and their sponsor, a friend of George’s.
While at the Social Security office during her first days in the U.S., Zdenka met someone who helped her find a job as a dental assistant. She worked in that capacity while completing a post-graduate program at NYU and becoming a licensed dentist. Zdenka’s parents were able to visit her several times in New York, including a six-month stay after her son was born in 1987 (her daughter was born in 1996). She first returned to Czechoslovakia in 1989, two months before the Velvet Revolution and today, travels back to Prague each year where her father and brother still live. Today, Zdenka lives in Manhattan with her husband, Jim, and practices as a dentist.
“It was great. There were no cars, as I remember, in 1960. There were no cars in the streets. We played ball games; we divided the street into two halves, and there were no cars coming. There was one car parked down the street. I remember postal wagons drawn by horses and the horse had the little package of hay in front of him and he was eating, and then they brought – Polska was a pub – so the horses brought the ice to the pub and hauled it down to the cellar to keep the beer nice and cold. Kids were sent with the little pitchers to get beer for the fathers. It was, as I remember, 1959, 1960, when I was five, six. It was a very quaint world at Vinohrady.”
Radio Free Europe
“We listened every Sunday at 6:00.”
No fear of that?
“No. That was the only source of information really, at that point, because the newspaper, the censorship, was such. There was no other info. I got used to it. I didn’t realize until I actually left on my own to go to Paris during medical school that things are very different. I knew that, but I didn’t really know that. It was like, unless you are out from the golden cage, you don’t know. You don’t know how isolated we were. I didn’t know how – information isolation, of course, we knew that – how culturally isolated we were. I mean, I knew that too, but I didn’t know how much of the desolation it was, and how people were cheated of the info. It didn’t have to be political info; it was the cultural. We didn’t know that there was the Summer of Love, that there were, in ’68, student upheavals in Paris. We just had a glimpse. It was very interesting that, basically, in ’68, people all over the world were sort of trying to do something else than before. And that, spiritually, would be very interesting to know, that the country was not the only one that was restless in the world during that time.”
Decision to Leave
“Our main concern was that in our professions, since I was already a dentist for two years and he was an architect for five years, we started to see how our professions were so technically oriented – he was building panel houses,pánelaky, and I was doing amalgam fillings – and I could read in German and English, I could go to the medical library and I could read, and I realized how behind we were, technologically and how absolutely impossible it was to overcome that. Since I always wanted to be a medical professional – I decided on dentistry later – I realized how minimized our potential was. He would build pánelaky forever. We couldn’t see that there would actually be an end. It was like a status quo which we felt would never change.
“So we decided for our professions as well as for our mental health not to live in a country where you have to have a double face: one for your work, to comply, and one for your friends and your family; and we believed that people felt ‘Oh, I can handle both. I can lie in work or not work.’ People went to work one hour late and left one hour early. Everybody took a two-hour lunch and it was so unproductive. It was pathetic. So we felt that it’s a waste of life, and since we were just starting and we were the lucky ones who didn’t have children, who were old enough to know what we were doing and we had the potential to do that, we decided to go with it.”
“George’s sister came for Christmas that year and brought her son, Michi, and we told her that we were going to leave and we asked her to take our paperwork, like my diploma, George’s diploma, our university books – the study books, where there were all the subjects we had [taken], because we knew we would need it. We sent ourrodný list, birth certificates. We put it into a package and, one night, Michi had a little coat, so I pulled off the lining and I put the package there, sewed back the [lining] – since I am the surgeon, right? I still remember, I was sitting in this chair, we had a red lamp, and my hands were like this [shaking], and I was sewing my paperwork into the kid’s coat. And then she tossed it on the window in the car, because we were afraid they might [search] her car or something, but she was going back and forth during that time all the time. So that’s how it went. It went ahead of us, so we didn’t have a problem with that.”
“The only one who knew that we were leaving was my mother and George’s sister, who lived at that time in Vienna; she was married to somebody in Austria.”
Your father didn’t know?
“No. I decided that my father would be boisterous and tell somebody. At that point, I didn’t trust anybody. It was hard not to tell him, but I felt that little anybody knows, they will be better off when I leave, and when the police come, they will say ‘I don’t know,’ because they really didn’t know. At that point, it was better for father not to know. I said goodbye to my mom. She went to the airport, but we said we wouldn’t talk because we would cry and we might lose our nerve. And so she was there; we exchanged… I could see her, from the plane, standing at Ruzyně Airport where you could see the planes; she couldn’t see me, but I could see her. She was there. “She said – she always called me holčička – ‘Moje holčička, it’s okay. I probably will never see you again,’ and I said ‘Mom! Of course you will see me. Of course you will see me.’ And she said ‘But it’s okay because this country is not in good shape for you and I fully understand.’ And I said ‘ Mom, I am going to be somewhere in a year, and we will see each other in a year,’ and she said ‘That’s fine,’ and she let me go. She loved me. My mom understood me. And, of course, a year and a half later, she arrived at JFK.”