Dagmar Benedik (born Dagmar Verflová), 1952
Dagmar Benedik was born in Kladno, Central Bohemia, in 1952. Her mother, Jarmila, taught at an after-school program and her father, Jiří, was a hockey coach. Dagmar recalls her childhood in Kladno as ‘fantastic.’ She says that many of her friends played on her father’s hockey team and she enjoyed traveling to Prague each week for French lessons and swimming practice and competitions. In the summer of 1968, Dagmar’s family planned to travel to Germany where her younger sister, Zuzana, was going to spend a few weeks with a family studying German. Because of a delay in processing, they received visas just a few days prior to the Warsaw Pact invasion on August 21, and Dagmar says her father made the decision to leave Czechoslovakia for good immediately following the invasion. Dagmar’s family drove toward the border at Rozvadov; because they entered the town through a local route instead of the main road from Plzeň, they avoided the barricade that had been set up to prevent travelers from crossing the border. Once across the border, they stayed with Dagmar’s sister’s host family for two weeks before spending six more weeks at Karlsruhe refugee camp.
In October 1968, Dagmar moved with her family to Toronto. She says that her parents chose to immigrate to Canada because it was a neutral country. Her mother started working as a housekeeper and nanny, and her father found employment as a watch-maker – a trade he had learned in Kladno. Dagmar attended high school and took English lessons in the mornings before school. She continued to swim and, in 1969, won the Toronto Championships. After graduating from high school, Dagmar began working at a bank and married her first husband, Josef Benedík, who was also a Czech émigré. In the late 1970s, then divorced, Dagmar traveled around the United States and says she ‘fell in love’ with the country. In 1986, she had a business opportunity there and moved to Tampa, Florida. She received American citizenship when she married her second husband. In 1995, Dagmar went to Prague with the intention of working as a translator for one month; she stayed in the Czech Republic for six years, where she ran her own business and then worked for Strojexport and Adamovské strojírny.
Dagmar says that she continues to keep Czech traditions at home and has learned several Czech crafts. She refers to herself as a ‘citizen of the world’ and exercises her voting rights in the countries of her citizenship. Today, Dagmar lives in Richmond Hill near Toronto, but is planning on moving back to Tampa, which she considers home.
Competitive swimming was one of Dagmar’s extracurricular activities
“When I was probably 13, they built a team and I started swimming, and that of course, took all of my time. I went to school and we had practice eight, nine times a week, so we went before school. In Kladno we did not have – and this is probably interesting for people, especially these days when they have everything – Kladno didn’t have a pool. They had a ‘city bath’ it was called, where all the people after work, all the steel mill workers and all the coal miners, went to soak themselves. So the water was very thick sometimes. Our pool in there was six by nine meters. It was very, very small. And the water was only – I would have to say, I am 5’8” and I have not grown since grade seven, so I’ve been this tall for a long time – and it was about to here [four feet], was the water. There was no deep end, there was nothing. So when I say thick, [it was] thick. And when people talk about chlorine this and chlorine that, we had a woman that took care of the water come with a bucket of chlorine, powdered chlorine, and just chuck it into the water over our heads.”
On August 22, 1968, Dagmar’s family left Czechoslovakia. She describes part of their journey to the border
“We got into a convoy of Army cars, and then my mother started freaking out, and we of course too, because we didn’t know what was happening. You could look into the woods and there were soldiers dug into dirty, filthy… because they were there for a couple of days. You were getting closer to the border so the woods were there, but they were everywhere. So you could see them and that was a very scary thing. Probably not very much conversation going on in the car, not that I remember. I remember holding a doll and just sitting there, not knowing what was happening.”
Dagmar talks about going to school while at a refugee camp
“My parents got a job at Siemens so they started working, and I went to gymnázium. I went to school; the weirdest school I ever went to was in Germany. My sister and I both went to school. The school was – for Germans, when you really think how structured they were and how strict – the school was like a zoo. I remember having a class and having a teacher, and somebody in the first row would start reading a book, tear the page out and send it through the class. They were throwing sneezing powder around so everybody would sneeze. We had an all-girls school across the yard, so the guys had binoculars and they were looking at the girls across the yard during class! Nobody stopped them. It was the weirdest zoo, I have to tell you.”
Dagmar has always had an emotional reaction to memories of the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 1968
“In those days, you would go to the movies and there was a newsreel. There were still newsreels before the movie in the late ‘60s. A lot of the things, I had to get out, because a lot of it was about the occupation of Czechoslovakia and I couldn’t take it. To this day for example, if I watch, from time to time, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and the part of the occupation, I have to leave the room because I start crying. And it’s not a bad cry anymore and I don’t know if it ever was, but what I did not realize then and what I realized it much later when I was here and I was older, that it was a death of life, because the life that we knew was gone.”
Dagmar says that her Czech heritage is becoming more important as she grows older
“What changes is, I think, the need to do something with it and to leave something behind and have the younger generation continue with that. But it’s always been important for me. That’s why I learned a lot of the crafts and the specific crafts. When I was in Czech [Republic], I learned the wire work and doing those things. I did the blueprint, the fabric, I made my own clothes. When I was in Tampa, of all places, I did a lot of that because I was part of a program the city had called ‘Artist in the School,’ and they paid people to go and teach underprivileged kids. And that was one of the most satisfying things is to see these little kids and you teach them to weave and they leave you a note and write thank you, you were part of their Thanksgiving Day or whatever. I think that’s what I feel is important. As I grow older, I wish I could teach. As is popular, ‘nobody is really interested in doing this,’ that’s not true. You have to find the ways and teach the old ways.”
Category: Oral History