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News > Leaving Czechoslovakia during Normalization?

Leaving Czechoslovakia during Normalization?

Rosamund Johnston 02 May, 2013

Since 2009, The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (NCSML) has been recording the stories of Czechs and Slovaks who settled in the United States throughout the course of the Cold War. Of the 282 interviews recorded to date, around one tenth has been with people who left during the normalization period.

 

For the purposes of this post, normalization means the era following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia and prior to the Velvet Revolution. It refers to the 1970s and 1980s, and the rule of Communist Party Leader Gustav Husak in particular.  There are, of course, many reasons why Czechs and Slovaks emigrated during this period. Marek Skolil explains his reasons for departure in the mid-1980s thus: “I realized that I want to leave the country – if I cannot study, I will leave.” Jan Kocvara, meanwhile, suggests that it was for his family’s sake that he decided to leave the country: “My son was in kindergarten... we went along the street for a walk and there was a big poster of Lenin and my [son] said ‘Look mommy, Comrade Lenin!’ And she said ‘This is enough. I don’t want this anymore. I had enough. They put it into the children. We have to go. We have to leave.’ So from that day on, we were trying to find some avenue how to get out.”

 

 

 

Among the older generation of NCSML interviewees, who emigrated in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there are many dramatic stories of crossing the border into West Germany on foot, often with bullets whistling past as they ran. By the 1970s, to all accounts, the process of emigration seems to have been a lot more bureaucratic. Borders were almost hermetically sealed, and the way out of the country was often through bribing and/or tricking a functionary, or stealing a stamp or appropriate piece of letterhead. Jerry (born Jiri) Barta’s experience reflects this trend: “The whole country was going downhill... it wasn’t really pretty. So I decided to take a calculated risk. I first forged a letter to the Socialist Youth [SSM - Socialistický svaz mládeže]. The letter was from the director of the school on behalf of Jiří Barta, because I was such a good boy and I participated in some exhibition on behalf of the Communist Party, and as a reward I was rewarded to go to Amsterdam for a field trip... Signed by the director. I had the stamp; I had a perfect letterhead; everything was just the way the school was communicating."
 

 

A favorite means of emigration during this time was through the organized coach tour. Interviewees discuss traveling to Yugoslavia and seeking asylum at an UN-run refugee camp in Belgrade. West Germany was another country in which Czech and Slovak tourists frequently claimed asylum. Tomas Pavlicek took a coach to Munich with his daughter in 1987: “I was not sure what responsibilities the tour guide had from the bus. If he perhaps will try to hold me, maybe even under gunpoint, I had no idea. So when the people got out of the bus and were picking up luggage, I used that as an opportunity when it was kind of chaos created, and it was late at night, so when I ran behind the corner during the darkness I thought perhaps I wouldn’t be followed or I wouldn’t be noticed. So I separated myself with my daughter from the group rather quickly, literally running away. Then I found that I was not followed by anyone, so the rest of the night I was just walking. But that short moment to getting from the place where we were getting out of the bus at some hotel, I literally ran away.”
 

 

In total, historians believe that around 13,000 Czechs and Slovaks settled in the United States during the normalization period. Following the Velvet Revolution, it is thought that thousands of them returned to today’s Czech and Slovak Republics.

 


 

Rosamund Johnston coordinates the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library’s oral history project Recording Voices & Documenting Memories of Czech & Slovak Americans. Johnston holds a degree in Modern Languages (Czech, Slovak and French) from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom. She has worked as a reporter for Czech Radio’s international service, Radio Prague.

 


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