Alexander (Alex) Cech (born Aleš Čech), 1927
Alex Cech was born in Kolín in Central Bohemia in 1927. His father Alois was the head of the Board of Civil Engineering in Kolín, while his mother Karolina stayed home and raised Alex and his older brother Vojen. Although there was little entertainment and he often went hungry, Alex says that the years during WWII were a ‘beautiful time’ as he developed very close relationships with his classmates. Alex was also involved in underground activities during the War, which involved sabotaging train tracks and highways used by the Nazi soldiers. He was detained for a short time by the Gestapo because of these activities.
Upon graduating from gymnázium in 1946, Alex spent one month as a tour guide with a group of French students. That fall, he began studying medicine at Charles University in Prague. Following the Communist coup in February 1948, Alex was arrested, but soon released. In 1949, he was expelled from school during a time when the Communist Party undertook a massive review of university students. Alex believes that his expulsion was a result of an incident several months earlier when he was ordered to report to a labor camp, but was able to get a note from a doctor stating that he was not able to do so. In June 1949, Alex and a friend secured jobs at a farm cooperative in the Šumava region with the intention of leaving the country if the opportunity arose. Only a few days after arriving, Alex crossed the border into Germany. He was sent to a processing camp in Amberg, and then to a refugee camp at Ludwigsburg.
In November 1950, Alex’s brother (who had left Czechoslovakia in 1947 and made his way to South America) sponsored him to come to Venezuela. His brother helped him to find his first job as a diesel mechanic in a cement factory. In 1953, Alex moved to Maracaibo and began working as a salesman for a large import company. He met his German-born wife, Katja, in 1957. In December 1958, Alex moved to New York City. Katja, who had returned to Germany, received a visa shortly thereafter. The couple married and settled in Queens. Alex’s first job in the United States was as head waiter at the Golden Door restaurant. In 1961, he worked for one year as a manager for an export agency which saw him traveling through Central and South America for all but two weeks out of the year. In 1964 Alex bought his own export company. He later bought a company that imported steel into the United States. After the fall of communism in his homeland, Alex began working for Pfizer as a liaison between the company and private buyers in Czechoslovakia.
Over the years, Alex was an active member of the Czech community in New York. He was president of the Association of Free Czechoslovak Sportsmen, an organization that sponsored skiing competitions and tennis matches. Alex was also instrumental in the revival of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, which acts as an umbrella organization for a number of Czech and Slovak heritage groups, and served as president of the association. He lived in Bronxville, New York, with his wife until his death in late 2012.
Alex describes his experience of WWII
“For us, it was the most beautiful time, the War. It’s crazy, you know. Unfortunately, my father was [taken by] the Gestapo several times and my brother was in the Gestapo [headquarters], but they let them go so our family was not really hurt. For the rest of us like me, it was the most beautiful time because we had a beautiful friendship. All the time I was going to the gymnázium and our class was going together and we had a very, very close friendship. The reason for that was, you see, there was nothing else to do. Nobody was going for vacation anymore and we didn’t have money to do anything and we didn’t have money to buy anything and we didn’t have money to eat. But for that reason, everybody was sitting home and we were meeting each other every day and we were very close to each other and we had a very close friendship. Naturally, for everybody who lived through that and was fortunate enough that they didn’t have big problems with the family, it was a beautiful time which I never had after, because once it was all over, you could go dancing here and dancing there. During the War, we couldn’t dance, for example. It was forbidden by the Germans. Dancing was forbidden. We were dancing, but we got a permit for the dancing school. But the only place we could dance was the dancing school in the fall. About two months, once weekly, we had a dancing school, but there was no dancing any other place. It was against the law. Naturally, too many parties. We were having parties as much as we could, but there was nothing to eat, nothing to drink, so everything was very restricted. It was crazy.
“I have very bad memories which I will never forget. Several times, I came to the pantry and I was hungry. In the afternoon, I came home off the bus and I would like to eat something, so I went to the pantry and I was looking all around and there was absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not even bread. Nothing!”
What did you do?
“Nothing. What could you do? You didn’t eat. My father lost weight and I lost weight. When it was over, I was weighing about 65 kilos. But we had a very beautiful social life.”
Alex took part in some underground activities during WWII
“We used to sabotage. For example, we used to put sand in the wheels of the trains and all kind of nonsense like that.”
You and your friends?
“Yeah, you know, you couldn’t have a very big group because they would crack it very fast because the Gestapo was very efficient and when it started getting large, they could always get you. So you could operate only in very small numbers. So there are only three guys, let’s say, and nobody else. Nobody knows about you and you don’t know about anybody else. So they would have to catch one of the three to crack you. But why should they catch you again? Because if you go during the evening or in the night to someplace in the railroad station and you fill the wheels with sand or stones or who knows. They couldn’t watch everything. So we were doing all kinds of nonsense like that. We would put rope over the road, over the highway, because nobody was driving but the Germans. Nobody had gas; nobody had a car, so if somebody was driving on the highway, it must have been Germans. So we would suspend the cable over the road and they would cut the heads off when you hit it.
“But on the other side, it was very dangerous because, as the Germans naturally do, they just took a hundred people and they killed them. Never mind who did it or didn’t do it, and under that condition it was very difficult to do something because people hated that you were in the underground. Because they were blaming you that the Germans were killing them. So you could never get too much collaboration from the population because the punishment was so severe.”
In 1946, Alex graduated from gymnázium
“Once you finish high school, the horizon opens up around you, in front of you, and there is no limit to what you can do. As long as you can remember, you are going to school in the morning and coming home in the afternoon and now, all of the sudden, you are sitting there and you can do whatever you like to do. Which is depressing in a way, because I was with my friends since grammar school, so we were together for some 12 or 15 years sitting in the same class, and all of the sudden it was all forgotten. Everybody went different ways. I had a little problem with it, so my father arranged for me that I went as a guide with a French group of university students which were visiting the Czech Republic, and then spent the whole month with them guiding them through Czechoslovakia – which was very interesting, because in a month I learned perfect French. What I was trying to learn in gymnázium for five years and never learned. I couldn’t say oui. So in one month I was basically perfect in French which was remarkable. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much opportunity to speak French ever after, so most everything I have forgotten, but at that time it was very nice.
“So we were traveling through all of Czech Republic. I took them to Krkonoše and we walked to the Riesengebirge, and it was very nice. It was unbelievable; it was something that I never witnessed ever after, which happened after the second World War. Because foreigners were sort of heroes and they were very well accepted and invited. Myself with my group, we sort of separated from the main group and five of us went on our own just traveling. Where ever we came, we didn’t have to pay. In the train for example. When we entered the train, the conductor would in the moment find out we are Frenchman, so he would take us to first class and say ‘Ok, sit down’ or if there was not first class, he would excuse himself and say he was sorry, there is only second class because this is a local train and they don’t have first class. I remember, my guys, we were in Prague, naturally as all young people are – we were at that time 20 years old – interested in the night life. So I took them to Lucerna, which was at that time, the largest, the biggest, and the most known nightclub and naturally, my guys, they have on shorts. They were not dressed. They had rucksacks, all of them, and that’s how they were coming. So I took them with the shorts to Lucerna and the head waiter, in the moment he found out we are French, no problem. We got the best table in the place. Unbelievable.”
Alex felt the effects of the Communist coup that took place in February 1948
“In March ’49, they decided they will make a so-called prověrky [review] that everybody has to come to the commission and has to be accepted to stay in the university. At that time, they expelled 50,000 university students and I was one of them.”
On what basis?
“No basis. You have an appointment when you have to go. It was in the fyzický ústav [physics institute] so I had to go there. So I enter into the room and there were three guys sitting there, all of them with beards, and they asked my name. So I told them my name, they looked in some papers, and told me ‘You are expelled from the university’ and that was it.”
Do you have any idea why?
“I got a dekret [decree] from the Ministry of the Interior and they sent me a dekret that said I have to go to forced labor for three years. I received that in ’48 in about November, after they let me go from jail. So two weeks later I received the dekret – that’s what it used to be called – and that I have to go in about two weeks or three weeks and register in the concentration camp in the uranium mines. So I was supposed to go there, but that time, they did it to about 35 of my friends in Kolín. Everybody who was sort of going over the evidence, so all of us they consigned to that concentration camp. But that was the end of ’48 and they were not so well in control, so actually what I did, was I went immediately to the doctor – Kaiser was his name – and showed him that I have to go to the jail and he said ‘No, you are not able to go to the jail’ so he gave me a dekret that I am not able to go in jail. So I didn’t go and I just sent in a copy of that and that was it. But it wasn’t it, naturally.”
One of Alex’s jobs in New York was as head waiter at the restaurant Le Voisin
“It was the best place in New York. Kennedy – the president – that was the only place he ate in New York, Le Voisin, with his wife and his sister-in-law and the count. They were eating at Le Voisin. Everybody. I knew everybody. That was the place where you can see everybody. The King of Spain used to be my customer. Only, at the time, he was not the king. He was studying here at the military academy and, to my pleasure, he was always bringing a different girl each time he came there. But he was very good, very nice. Dali. With him I was very friendly because naturally I spoke [Spanish] with Dali and his señora. Anybody. You name it, I met them. Gregory Peck and Kennedy – the other one – Robert, he was always coming there with three or five kids. I didn’t like him. He never sat at the table. He had five kids sitting there and he was going from table to table. He was always running for something, I guess, because he was going from table to table, talking, because they are all known people there, so I guess he knew all of them. I always had a problem with it because I didn’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
In the late 1970s, Alex led an effort to restore the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association
“So all of the sudden I was president of the Bohemian Benevolent [and Literary] Association [BBLA] which basically didn’t exist because there were the old associations of the ČSA and now the only association was the Sportsmen – the only living association – and myself as the president. Now I naturally decided that I have to do something about the BBLA, to get rid of the old associations which do not exist and get new guys. So the Rada svobodného Československa (Council of Free Czechoslovakia), which was Horák, immediately asked if they could join and I said ‘Ok, why not’ so he brought $2,000 and Rada svobodného Československa was a new member. Papánek came after me and invited me for lunch and said ‘Doctor, what about letting us join the BBLA?’ and the SVU, that was at that time Dr. Pekáček, Dostal and Pekáček. Pekáček came to me and said ‘Pane doktore, could we join the BBLA?’ I said ‘Why not?’ So within about ten days, all of the sudden, we had all the living associations, about seven of them, join the BBLA and so all of this is what I call the founding of the BBLA because the old stuff basically disappeared and now I was the president and I got the new organizations in and that was the new life.”
Category: New York City, Oral History