Daniela Mahoney (born Daniela Šípková), 1956
Daniela Mahoney was born in Prague in 1956. Her parents lived in Karlovy Vary at the time and Daniela spent much of her time with her grandparents in Prague. When her parents divorced, Daniela’s mother moved back to Prague where she worked as a nurse. Daniela says that she became interested in languages at a young age and enjoyed learning Russian and German in school. After finding out from her father that he spoke French, she began taking French lessons at a cultural center. Daniela studied international affairs and business; however, her plans to build a career in governmental foreign services were derailed as several of her aunts and uncles left Czechoslovakia for Switzerland. She found a job as a receptionist at a hotel in Prague.
After her stepfather’s death in 1979, Daniela and her mother made plans to leave the country. In July 1980, they joined a tour traveling to Germany, Italy and Austria, and left the group on the first night of the tour. Claiming asylum, Daniela and her mother had to wait to receive work permits before they could build their new life. Daniela’s mother eventually received her credentials and worked as a nurse for 15 years (today she continues to live in Germany). Because of her language skills, Daniela worked as an interpreter. At a trade show in Frankfurt, she met her future husband, Patrick Mahoney, who lived in Portland, Oregon. He invited Daniela to the United States and, in 1982, she traveled to Portland. The couple married the following year.
Since moving to the United States, Daniela has received a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a master’s degree in social work from Portland State University. Today she works as a case manager for the state of Oregon. Daniela has also had a successful career as a folk artist. She learned traditional egg decorating from her grandmother and, since arriving in the United States, has turned her hobby into a business, selling decorated eggs, giving lectures, creating children’s coloring and activity books, and promoting traditional folk crafts and culture. Daniela’s two children are also skilled egg decorators. Daniela has returned to the Czech Republic three times, most recently to research her family history and genealogy. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband Patrick.
Daniela talks about her grandparents
“My grandma was from southern Moravia and she had several sisters, and one of the sisters became a maid for wealthy people who lived in Prague. There were usually women who came to the villages to recruit young, unmarried women to come to Prague to work for the wealthy people, and typically the young women would work for them for a few years and then they would get married and then they would find another woman to work for them. And so one of Grandma’s sisters got a job like that and then she brought several sisters to Prague and my grandma was one of the sisters. Typically the girls would be taking care of the children or they would work in the kitchen or they would clean the house. My grandma became involved in cooking, and she was a very good cook and she knew how to prepare all these fancy meals because in the old days people would organize large parties in their homes and everything was made in that home by the servants and so my grandma was one of those servants. My grandfather came from a farming family; he was the musician and he did amateur music, but he actually worked for the post office in the old days, so he had a full-time job. The way I understand it is that my grandma and my grandfather had been introduced to each other by someone, so it was like a blind date, and so this is how they got together in Prague, because they both worked there.”
Daniela fondly recalls spending summers with her grandmother in Moravia
“Grandma always would take me to Moravia for vacations because her sisters lived there, and we would spend the whole summer in the countryside and I have really fond memories from those times that I shared also with my daughter and my son, always referring to Moravia. I had really interesting memories because my grandma’s sisters were living in the farming communities and, certainly, the lifestyle there was very different than in Prague, and they always thought I was very skinny and they had to feed me because I am too skinny. So I recall that we would get up as children and my grandma’s sister would ask ‘What do you want for lunch? Do you want chicken or a rabbit?’ and she would just go and she would catch the chicken and actually prepare it for lunch, and so lunch preparation took like four hours and, of course, we would never do anything like that in Prague, so it was quite a cultural shock for me.”
From a young age, Daniela had an affinity for languages
“Ever since I was school age, my grandma encouraged me to communicate with my father in Karlovy Vary, so I found out that he spoke fluent French and he spent the time during the War in, actually, in France, and so I felt inspired to study French. It was not available in our school that I went to – I was already 11 or 12 when I decided to study French – and so I remember that Grandma would take me to a special cultural center where they would teach the French language, and we had to walk through a dark street and there was a cemetery on the side, and so I remember that Grandma would take me every Wednesday night. She would walk with me around the cemetery and she would take me to the cultural center and sit there and wait so that I could finish studying and take these classes. So as a child, I guess I was a small linguist and so I was very proficient by the time I was a teenager. I was very proficient in German and French and Russian languages.”
Growing up in communist Czechoslovak required creativity, says Daniela
“We were a crafty family so I knew how to crochet and knit, and I remember that we had shortages of certain materials so when we wanted to buy clothes there was not really a big choice, so people would sew their own clothes; they would knit and crochet. I remember this unique experience that people would actually go to the stores and buy socks. They were woolen socks and you would actually take the socks apart and you would recycle the yarn, and so they would knit or crochet a sweater, and then, when I would grow, they would take the sweater apart and add more yarn, but they were still using these socks. I cannot actually explain it to anyone, but people who were born in the Czech Republic or grew up there would probably remember those times. I remember also that we would use old clothing that we would get from relatives from the United States. They would send us these packages, because my grandfather’s brothers and sisters all lived in the United States. So they would send this large clothing to us and we would actually take the clothing and put patterns over it, and I remember having clothing from those garments. Because of all these experiences, I actually became very resourceful and creative.”
Daniela and her mother began making plans to escape in 1979 and, one year later, they left the country
“I had some contacts in Germany so we decided to sign up for a tour and, my mother and I, we would go on a tour and then we would essentially leave the tour, and so we went on a tour to Munich. It was a tour that went to Germany, Italy and Austria. It began in Germany and ended in Austria, and we actually chose to separate ourselves from the group already in Germany, on the first night of the journey. So we prepared for this escape for one year for sure – it was slightly more than that – so we sold most of our possessions and converted the money into Western currency and left. We left, literally, with a suitcase full of old clothes that we had to leave behind [with the tour] and my mother had a plastic bag and I had another plastic bag and that’s what we left with. But we had some friends who were able to travel across the border from the Czech Republic to Germany, and they were able to bring our documents and some valuables, but very little. So we had left not only our belongings, but all the memorabilia that had sentimental value – we had to leave all of it there.”
In 1982, Daniela moved to the United States
“For the first time in my life I was very relaxed. I didn’t have to be stressed out about what am I going to do, where am I going to work, how I am going to pay my rent. In the Czech Republic, as well as in Germany, there was always a fear. We always lived in fear of somebody or something. It is very difficult to disassociate yourself from the fear. There are certain fears that you have learned to somehow keep in your mind at all times – the alertness. So I think it’s some kind of a trauma actually, but that’s one issue that will never go away. So I’m always fearful of something, and I have learned to manage those fears but, still, there are times when I am afraid.”
Daniela reflects on her sense of identity
“I love the Czech Republic. I absolutely loved visiting the Czech Republic; I felt like Alice in Wonderland. It was a beautiful, wonderful experience and I love the country and I love the people. I cannot see myself there anymore as a permanent resident. I remember coming back to Portland, and I was holding my passport in my hand, and all of the sudden this weird feeling came over me: ‘I am home.’ That still is sad; this is a very sad realization, where you basically have an identity problem, like ‘Who am I?’ and I think that is a problem that will never be resolved. But, I just am who I am. I’m a U.S. citizen; I work in the United States; I went to school here; I have a job here; my entire life is here. Of course, I could retire and then live with my retirement in the Czech Republic, but I have so many friends here and so many people I know and so many things I want to do here. So I think I can just go back as a visitor and I can embrace those opportunities but, sadly to say, this is my home, the United States.”
Category: Oral History