Gabriel Levicky (born Gabriel Levický), 1948
Gabriel Levicky was born in Humenné, eastern Slovakia, in 1948. His parents, Hungarian-speaking Slovak Jews, both survived concentration camps during WWII; his mother was in Auschwitz and his father in Sachsenhausen. Gabriel says that they were not forthcoming with their experiences of the Holocaust. Gabriel’s father, a member of the Communist Party, was the director of the Dom kultúry (municipal cultural center) in Humenné. Gabriel says his teenage years were heavily influenced by Western culture, most notably music and literature. He was in a band called The Towers and subscribed to Svetová literatúra, a periodical devoted to world literature. Gabriel’s lifestyle and his involvement in the hippie movement in Czechoslovakia led to conflicts with his father; following his schooling, he left home and traveled around the country.
Gabriel was traveling from Žilina to Humenné when he heard about the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968. On arriving in Humenné, he had an altercation with Soviet soldiers; the next day, he participated in protests against the invasion. Soon after the invasion, Gabriel says, a friend warned him that the secret police were looking for him, and he decided to leave the country. Using a friend’s passport, he crossed the border, made his way to Vienna, and then went to Israel. One year later, he returned to Czechoslovakia as part of an amnesty granted to those who left following the invasion in 1968. Gabriel moved to Bratislava and held a series of jobs including editor for the publishing house Obzor, mailman, and technical assistant in an art gallery. He was involved in the underground cultural movement, drew cartoons and wrote poetry.
His anti-establishment activities were noticed by authorities and he says he was constantly harassed and interrogated by the secret police. The situation deteriorated further when he signed Charter 77. He says he decided to leave for a second time in 1979 when the ŠtB asked him for money. Gabriel and a co-worker left the country with little money and no food or water. He says the two-week journey to Italy, which took them through Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia, was a ‘miracle,’ as they were helped by several strangers along the way. Gabriel hitchhiked to Rome where he stayed for several months while waiting for papers to immigrate to the United States.
In July 1979, Gabriel arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, where he lived with an aunt for a short time before moving to New York City and then settling in San Francisco. In 1996, Gabriel worked in Prague as deputy editor-in-chief for the Czech newspaper Mosty. When he returned to the U.S., he settled in New York where he still lives today. Gabriel is a translator, tour guide, and cartoonist, and he has published several volumes of poetry.
Gabriel’s parents were reluctant to talk about their experiences in concentration camps
“It’s the supreme example of highly sophisticated survival skills. You don’t want to jeopardize anything. You don’t want to jeopardize your family; you don’t want to jeopardize the future; you will say everything to everybody just to leave you alone. That was the whole principle. In other words, yes, I disagree maybe inside, but I openly say ‘Yes, of course, you are right.”
The advent of rock and roll changed Gabriel’s life
“I think that the most incredible period for me personally, for us as a young generation at that time, was the invasion of rock and roll. The music. Rock and roll culture. Radio Luxembourg. For us it was a fascinating world because we thought that if this is possible, something over there must be right. And it’s very difficult to explain to people who don’t understand the impact of culture on young minds or a young outlook. And rock and roll really changed a lot in Czechoslovakia. Bands mushroomed almost instantly. Right after a show on Czechoslovak TV, ‘the decadent West’ and they showed a picture of the Beatles running on the street from A Hard Day’s Night, and that day, those idiots created a mass movement. From day one to the next day, everybody started to look, or attempted to look like the Beatles and play the music.”
Gabriel recalls an incident with Soviet soldiers during the Warsaw Pact invasion
“I managed to arrive [in Humenné] late night; it was already martial law declared, and I didn’t know of course. So I was coming from the train and I’m walking towards my parents’ house, and boom. I come to the square. All these Russian tanks, lorries, trucks, they had this white paint through the body for identification. Every Russian vehicle was painted with a white stripe in the middle. So all I could see were these white stripes in the middle of the night, and here comes the patrol. A Russian officer with two soldiers. In Russian – I understand and speak Russian – he says ‘What are you doing here?’ and I said ‘What are you doing here?’ So this dialogue was happening in the middle of the night, and these two guys are holding their guns against me and he’s holding a handgun. And I start to shout ‘You mother f*****s’ – I was 20 – ‘Wait until the… you will see you are going to be kicked out of here when the Germans and Americans come and kick your ass outta here!’ And when they heard the ‘German’ and ‘American’ because it was ‘Ruskii, Amerikanskii, Nemetskii,’ they unlocked the guns, aimed at me, all three of them aimed their guns at me, and they said ‘Run.’ And I realized that’s it. So I said ‘Please don’t shoot,’ and I was running backwards like this, to the passage – there was a passage in the building which my parents lived around the corner – ‘Please don’t shoot, don’t shoot,’ and they let me go. But it was a second. A split second. They could kill me, nobody would find anything about me, they could discard my body, nothing could be done about it, because I was the only one on the square.
“And the next day, I woke up and I went out, collected money and went to the Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship House, I bought Soviet flags. I got all these kids with matches and they were walking around burning Soviet flags walking around the square around the Soviet tanks. I thought ‘Hey, they’re not going to shoot the little kids; they’re going to shoot us, but they’re not going to shoot the kids.”
Gabriel left Czechoslovakia for Israel in 1968, but returned after one year
“I was young. I was 20, I didn’t know what I was doing. It was my first time in the West. I wasn’t really ready for Israel. I was young, I was naïve. I was also sentimental, I was not ready. I was emotionally drained, I was physically drained.”
Gabriel discusses the repercussions of and his reasons for signing Charter 77
“The police essentially attacked my office. They came to do a search. Plainclothes police. They raided the place with Volgas, [Tatra] 603s and all these other cars and then they left. They took the samples from my type machine. Then my boss, this guy who hired me – he passed away; he was an alcoholic, died a few years ago; he was a very interesting guy – and he came to me and said ‘What was it, a ticket? A speeding ticket?’ And I said ‘No, no, no.’ ‘So what it is it? What happened here?’ ‘Well, nothing really, I just signed Charter 77.’ And he looked at me and said ‘You asshole, now I can’t protect you. Now you are out.’ And in one month I was pink, I was out.”
So, why did you sign Charter 77?
“For me, it was a moral imperative. I might sound like an idealist, but the moral imperative was very clear. I’m not supporting the regime. I have a lot to lose – some people had more to lose than me of course – but I’m not going to anymore do it halfway. I’m not going to compromise anymore. I’m just going to make a statement because it’s my responsibility as a citizen of Czechoslovakia to bring up these issues that are destroying the country. That was essentially my argument.”
A few years ago, Gabriel was able to view his secret police file
“I asked them for my files; they brought it to me, and I was going through all the interrogation they did with my relatives, my friends, my ex-girlfriend, my ex-wife, including my letter I sent to Charter 77 reporting on abuses in Slovakia, which never arrived there because they confiscated it. Then I found an interesting section that said ‘350 pages erased’ or destroyed. And I said, ‘What the f*** is that?’ So I asked the guy who worked there, he said ‘Well, that’s what they did in ’89.’ Can you imagine? December 1989, they destroyed 350 pages. Some of them are referring to people who are actually spying on me, but it’s missing, it’s gone. So I asked them ‘What happened to my file? Somebody can access my file?’ Can you imagine, people can actually, for study purposes, can access your file which I think is totally absurd. This is your private file. The police could do anything, they could even imitate the signatures if they wanted, they could manipulate anything they wanted.
“So what’s the big deal, you can’t bring it back, you can do nothing about it, so what are you gonna do? I don’t dwell on it anymore. I mean, it’s my file ok, of course it’s disturbing, it’s mentally disturbing, and very very threatening because you see how they manipulated people and manipulated interviews.”
Category: New York City, Oral History