Frank Fristensky (born František Frištenský), 1948
Frank Fristensky was born in Olomouc in Moravia in 1948. He lived with his parents on his paternal grandparents’ farm outside of the city until 1953, when the Frištenskýs moved to Rožnov pod Radhoštěm, close to the Slovak and Polish borders. Frank’s mother was originally from Prague, where her Jewish family was quite wealthy. During the Nazi occupation, her entire family was sent to Terezín. Although she and her brother survived, the rest of her family was deported to Auschwitz and killed in the gas chambers. Frank’s paternal great-uncle, Gustav Frištenský, was a world-famous Greco-Roman wrestler. Frank’s grandfather accompanied Gustav on his tour of the United States in 1913 and 1914, and Frank recalls hearing of his admiration for the country. Many of Frank’s family members were keen sportsmen – and to this day, Frank carries on that tradition.
Frank attended a technical school in Valašské Meziříčí and, upon graduating, began serving his two-year military service. After the Warsaw Pact invasion on August 21, 1968, Frank was unexpectedly discharged from the army at the request of his father. Shortly after, he left the country with his parents and two younger brothers. The family settled in Switzerland where, coincidently, Frank’s uncle and his family had traveled just days earlier. Frank attended the Swiss Federal Institute of Sport and received a degree in teaching and coaching sports. After graduating he joined a semipro hockey team.
In 1976, Frank traveled with a friend to the United States. They spent several months driving around the country and visiting Hawaii, and they ultimately traveled to Montreal where they attended the Olympics. Although Frank returned to Switzerland, he hoped to move to the United States. Two years later, after attending a conference in Texas, Frank visited his friend, Arnošt Lustig, who lived in Washington, D.C., and taught at American University. Arnošt helped him to secure a job at American as the women’s volleyball coach, assistant athletic trainer, and assistant physical education professor. Frank says that his first classes were taught with the help of a German translator, as he did not know English.
Frank met his wife, Victoria, while at American University. The couple had a daughter and moved to Michigan when Frank became the head volleyball coach at Eastern Michigan University. When Frank’s father fell ill, he and his family returned to Switzerland for what he thought would be a short time. They remained in Switzerland for nine years, and their two younger children were born there. Frank and his family moved to Durango, Colorado, in 1996. Today, Frank is a personal trainer and fitness consultant. He also runs a tour company that specializes in travel to central Europe. Frank is extremely proud of his Czechoslovak heritage and has taken a particular interest in his family history. He recently organized a Fristensky family reunion, which was held at Bohemian National Hall in New York.
Frank’s mother lost most of her family members during the Holocaust
“When the Nazi occupation came, in 1942 or 1941 they all had to vacate their premises, their house – they had a beautiful house in one of the nicest parts of Prague – and they were deported to Terezín, where most of the Jews from the Czech Republic, some from other countries as well, lived there. My mom basically survived Terezín, one of just a couple hundred kids, but her entire family, which means parents – my grandparents – her brother, her uncles and aunts and everybody, was deported to Auschwitz almost to the end of the WWII, and upon arrival in Auschwitz they were put right in the chambers. So nobody survived. My mom’s brother was about 18, 19 years old and, according to the German perception, he was still healthy and young, so he was deported and sent on a train from Auschwitz to the east side of Germany to a labor camp. But the train was bombed by the Allied Forces and as the train stopped he jumped out and with friends – this was about February of 1945, so very close to the end of WWII – and they were more or less crawling and walking and freezing through Poland and made it all the way to Prague. From the entire mom’s family, just her and her brother survived.”
Frank’s family left Czechoslovakia shortly after the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968
“I was in the military in 1968. Right after I graduated from technical school, I went to the military. On August 21, when the Soviets came around, I don’t know how it even happened, but my dad said I had to come home and so one of the officers called me to his office and said ‘There is a letter from your dad, and you need to come home,’ which under normal circumstances was absolutely unheard of. You know, as a young man you have to go to two years in the military. So he’s reading the letter from my dad to me and then he takes his big stamp and he just puts a stamp on it and says ‘Just go.’ Today I think he probably knew what was happening because it was about two weeks after August 21. Maybe he left too; I don’t know. But I went back to my home town. It took us two days; we packed. One car, five people with five sleeping bags and five pillows and maybe 20 dollars in our pockets, and we left for Austria.”
Eventually, Frank’s family settled in Switzerland; he explains how this happened
“In Vienna we were led into the sports dome, a large sports athletic complex. There were thousands of Czechs and Slovaks, sleeping on the floor and on the bleachers. I mean, thousands. It was a mess. I remember like it was yesterday. And as my mom walks in – again, I see it just like it’s happening right now – she said ‘No other concentration camp.’ And she turned around and walked out. So we were all walking behind her, and I noticed that she was crying, because she didn’t expect that. So we really didn’t know where to go, and then as we were walking out to our car, some people said ‘Go to the Swiss embassy. They are taking Czechs. Go there and they are going to take care of you. I couldn’t speak any German, but both my parents could speak German so I guess they understood what was happening, so that’s where we went. The Swiss just took our information from us and then they found out that my dad’s youngest brother, with his family, already defected a couple says before us to Switzerland.”
And your dad didn’t know?
“I don’t know. But when I recollect all these events and what was happening, I think he really didn’t know, because that’s where we would have gone first. Why even bother to go to the sports hall in Vienna with my mom crying and finding out what’s going to be next? So I assume that he really didn’t know.”
In 1976, Frank and a friend traveled to the United States for a visit
“My friend and I played semi-professional ice hockey, and it was between the seasons and he said ‘Why don’t we go to America?’ It was [1976 sic.], there were the Olympics in Montreal and, since we were in the Olympic center, we knew many of the Swiss athletes and they said ‘Well, come and visit us. We’ll have a good time.’ It was not as tight security as today. You could walk in the Olympic village and go for a beer with the athletes; today it’s impossible. We said ‘Well, why not?’ Both of us couldn’t speak a word of English. It was in April of ’76.
“So we flew to New York and in the Bronx we bought a 1968 Cadillac, because we loved this big ship. I mean, gosh, I’d never seen anything that big. You could play ping-pong on the hood. And each of us had a hockey bag with our stuff – you could out four hockey bags in the trunk! I thought that was really cool. So we bought this for 800 dollars, a 1968 Cadillac, and we traveled all around the country. We probably have seen all of the national parks, and we zigzagged the country all over. When we got to Los Angeles, some of my mom’s family was there, so we were with them and there was a lady who could speak Czech, so after several months I could speak Czech; that was great too.
“And our hockey club president lived in Hawaii in the off-season. So he said ‘When you guys are in Los Angeles, just call me and I’ll buy a ticket for you and I’ll pick you up.’ And we got our tickets and flew to Hawaii and we were his guests for two weeks. We didn’t spend a penny! He fed us; he lived in Waikiki Beach in a penthouse on the top. Especially for me, I was still kind of fresh coming from Czechoslovakia. So it was wonderful. We went to Canada, almost to Alaska, just to the bottom of Alaska. And then on Highway 1 we went all the way to Montreal and were there right when the Olympics started and mingled with the Swiss.”
Category: Oral History