Frank Safertal


Frank, 2011Frank Safertal (born František Safertal), 1942

Frank Safertal was born in the Holešovice district of Prague in 1942. His father, also named František, had been arrested shortly before Frank’s birth because of his participation in an underground resistance group. Frank’s father was sent to a labor camp in Krems an der Donau in Austria for the remainder of WWII and only saw his son for the first time after the War ended in 1945. During the War, Frank and his mother, Milena, lived with her parents in Holešovice. Upon returning home, František became a manager of a dental sales company, but when the business was nationalized in 1948, the family moved to Jablonec nad Nisou in northern Bohemia where he became the quality control manager of a factory. Four years later, the family returned to Prague. Frank says that his father was passionate about sports and passed the hobby on to him. From a young age, he skied and played tennis and soccer. Influenced by one of his teachers, Frank became interested in music and learned to play piano. After grade school, Frank attended an industrial school, and then enrolled at the University of Economics, Prague (VŠE) for industrial engineering. He says that his time at university was ‘eye-opening,’ both intellectually and politically, and that he began to realize ‘how bad the regime was.’ Frank started a jazz band at this time, and was jailed for advertising dances. He says he was also influenced by Western artists in Prague (such as Gene Deitch and Allen Ginsburg), from whom he heard about life in the United States. Frank graduated from university in 1966 and served one year in the military near the German border in Klatovy. In 1967, he began working as a computer engineer at ‘the nationalized IBM.’ The same year, he met and married his wife, Otakara Safertal.


Although Frank had been thinking about spending some time abroad, he says that, following the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, the decision to emigrate was ‘very quick.’ He and Otakara received exit permits and, ten days after the invasion, took the train to Vienna. Frank was encouraged to stay in Austria and even interviewed for a job at IBM, but ultimately, he and Otakara decided to move to Canada. They arrived in Toronto in October 1968, where Frank began taking English classes and became in involved in the Czech theatre group Nové Divadlo with his wife. While working for Hughes Network Systems, Frank lived in Saudi Arabia for four years and Prague for three years (following the Velvet Revolution). In 1998, his employer transferred him to Maryland. While living in the Washington, D.C. area, Frank has been active in the Czech community. He served as the secretary-general of Czechoslovak Society of Arts & Sciences (SVU) for six years and helped organize numerous congresses. Today, he is a consultant for the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife.

Frank’s father was arrested for his involvement in an underground resistance group

“My family had a very positive view of the Soviets. Number one, when I was born, my father was already in jail. He was jailed in 1942 – in the spring of 1942 – and he was in a labor/concentration camp called Krems an der Donau in Austria until 1945. And the camp, which was a mix between a labor camp and a concentration camp, was actually liberated by the Red Army. So my father had a very favorable view of the Soviets and the Russians because he was liberated by them, and he, quite frankly, escaped with his life. He was lucky to get home in 1945 and he saw me when I was three years old.”

After finishing elementary school, Frank attended an industrial school

“I think that it was a very good system, because in this industrial school one day week you actually had to work in a factory. Prague in those days had a lot of industrial productions, basic factories, basic Class A factories manufacturing trucks and railroad cars and streetcars and airplanes. So one day a week we have to go to a factory and physically work with the workers. That, I think, was a great experience to learn what really happens in manufacturing, what really happens in a factory, and I think it was a great experience. Whether it was in a metal working shop or whether it was in a tool making shop, whatever it was, you all of the sudden had an experience with the real world.”

Frank started a jazz band with some of his university classmates

“If you had an orchestra or a club – any kind of a social gathering – you had to have, under the communist law, something called provozovatel in the Czech language, meaning like a sponsor. You couldn’t just simply have a knitting club, just people getting together and knit, you couldn’t do that. You could knit, but you had to have a sponsor. And it would have to be an organization approved by the system. So we found a couple places where the organization – a youth organization or municipal organization – would allow us to practice and play under their logo. So one of our logos was Youth Group of Fidel Castro. My orchestra was known as the Storyville Jazz Band – Storyville was a part of New Orleans, we studied New Orleans in detail, including the maps – but we were playing as the Storyville Jazz Band, part of the Youth Group of Fidel Castro. So I have a photograph here somewhere where we’re playing, and above us is a big picture of Fidel Castro.”

While advertising for his band, Frank ran into some trouble with the law

“One of the laws in Czechoslovakia was you couldn’t put up a poster, because the police immediately figured out ‘If he puts up a poster, he’s organizing something,’ and that was a no-no. Of course, how do you advertise something all of the dances and all of the stuff, you have to have posters. I was one of the guys who made posters, and in known places in Prague I would go and post the posters. And so twice they basically arrested me for the posters, twice they interrogated me, twice I was in jail because of this poster business. But it wasn’t just the poster, because they always suspected something much more sinister. We weren’t really all that sinister. We just wanted to play jazz and have a good time, but the police and the secret police, they thought ‘Hmm poster.’ So I was in jail. And then I was in jail because I had a gun, which I inherited from my grandfather, and in those days in Czechoslovakia you couldn’t have a gun. I showed it to somebody and he reported it and so they came and jailed me.”

How long were you kept in jail?

“With the gun I was there for two days. In interrogation if you will. You know ‘Where did you get the gun? Who gave you the gun? Is there somebody else who has a gun?’ and that kind of thing.”

Frank worked as a computer engineer

“There were limits on exports and imports of technology. For example, we were not allowed to import Western technology. Czechoslovakia couldn’t do that. So we were relying on Russian computers, Minsk, which were manufactured in Minsk which is today Belarus. That was the main center of the Russian computer industry. So these computers were decimal computers, and we had access already to magazines from the West and literature from the West. We knew that we were ten years behind in technology. So we worked on them, we did our work, but we knew that this was ridiculous, ‘What are we doing here? We’re working with something which is…’ So absolutely it was stifling. You couldn’t really do much. You had to do what you were told, but you couldn’t really innovate. You couldn’t come up with a better idea. The best people who were in the technology business in those days left or emigrated way before me. It was a nice job, put it this way. I got the salary and I had a nice office and I did interesting things. In those days, we wore white coats. The computer guys and gals wore white coats; we looked like physicians. But it wasn’t really motivating.”

Frank encountered the Soviet soldiers during the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968

“Most of the regiments came from Central Asia. Most of these guys couldn’t speak Czech or Russian. A lot of these guys were Asian folks. I don’t know what they told them, but I think they told them ‘You’re in Germany or some other Western country defending socialism.’ These guys were crazy. Well, they were not only crazy, they were kind of puzzled, they had a puzzled look on them, like ‘Where am I? What’s going on here?’ but many of them were crazy, shooting guns. All of the sudden in the middle of the city you had tanks and guys with the machine guns and bullets flying. It was terrible.”

Did you have any personal encounters with the soldiers?

“Many, many.”

Did you try to talk to them?

“Tried to talk to them. Well, that’s what we did for days and days. We would walk the city, we would sit there with flags and we would try to talk to them, because most of us spoke Russian. So we would approach them, and they were approachable. Not that they were not approachable, because they were village boys from Kazakhstan and they had no idea, so many of them were approachable, and many of them kind of talked. But they really didn’t know where they were. Well, I don’t think they had an idea. The officers did, but I think the staff, I don’t think so.”

Once in Austria, Frank and Otakara decided on their next step

“I was also applying for work at IBM in Austria, and it turns out that in the same building where the main headquarters of IBM in Austria was the Canadian Consulate. One day I was up with IBM, and I’m on the elevator from the IBM office and some people get on the elevator speaking Czech and they say that they just came from the Canadian Consulate and the Canadian Consulate said they can go to Canada. I’d tried, early on, to get to the United States, but the U.S. Embassy told us that it would be a year and a half in a refugee camp, and I thought ‘Well, what am I going to do in a refugee camp? I mean, I don’t want to be in a refugee camp,’ and Ota, my wife, thought the same thing. So we went to the Canadian Embassy the same day. She was sitting down in the café on the sidewalk and I said ‘Hey listen, let’s go back to the Canadian Consulate,’ filled out the form, and the rest is history. Ten days later we were on the plane.”

Category: Oral History