George Knessl (born Jiří Knessl), 1929
George Knessl was born in Volyně, southern Bohemia, in 1929. He was raised by his mother in Vsetín, near the Slovak border. George never knew his father as he was killed shortly before George was born. George attended technical school in Vsetín, which he says was severely disrupted towards the end of WWII, with classes being evacuated on account of bomb scares. When George turned 16 towards the end of the War, he received a letter conscripting him as a laborer to help with the German war effort. George says instead of responding to this summons, he remained at home and positioned himself so as to be able to run into the woods should officials come and investigate his whereabouts.
George says he did spend several days in the woods at the very end of the War. When he returned to Vsetín, he recalls seeing corpses of Czechs accused of collaborating with the Nazis. Following WWII, George continued with his engineering studies in Vsetín, as part of which he says he learned English from a Czech soldier who had fought in the British Army during the War. Upon graduation, George went to work at MEZ Vsetín. He moved to Plzeň following his mother’s death in 1954, where he took a job at Škoda. He was employed by Škoda until leaving Czechoslovakia with his wife and son in 1968.
George was on vacation with his family in Yugoslavia in August 1968 when he heard that Warsaw Pact troops had invaded Czechoslovakia. He says that the Yugoslav police informed Czechs and Slovaks in the country at the time that they could stay if they wished. George had a cousin in the United States, however, and so the family tried to immigrate there. The Knessls traveled to Austria, where they were housed at a number of refugee camps, including Traiskirchen, while their visa applications were processed by the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees. Within a couple of months, the family had visas and was flown to New York City.
George’s first job was in a hotel in Pennsylvania, which he says in no way used his experience as an engineer. The Knessls ended up settling in Chicago, where George’s cousin found him a job as a draftsman in the factory in which he worked. In Chicago, George became involved in the Spolek českých inženýrů [Czech Engineers’ Club], through which he says he found a job at General Motors. In 1972, the Knessls bought a house in Berwyn, in which George still lives today. He calls his home ‘an American miracle.’ George continues to be active in the Chicago Czech community.
George remembers Vsetín being liberated by the British Army at the end of WWII
“Well, I can say it is nothing beautiful, but the next day I was going downtown to take a look. The first thing when I crossed the bridge, I saw the dead body of a woman over the side. They say that she was a collaborator with the Gestapo. It means people killed her. When the Army came, they had a rule that for the first two days, they are not responsible for any law. It is a lawless situation. When I went farther into the park, there were dead bodies of these collaborators. People again, people got together and killed them, because they were collaborating with the Gestapo. It was the ugly part, you know, but it was only one day before they cleaned it.”
George was on summer vacation in Yugoslavia when the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia happened
“We found another camp where we were only supposed to stay for two days. And when I went to swim in the sea in the morning, (because I don’t have a shower in the morning when I’m by the sea, I jump into the sea) – I went swimming, and when I was getting out of the water, there was a German professor crying, saying how the Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia with tanks, and how this damaged socialism. But I didn’t give a toss about socialism anymore.
“All the Czechs in the campground sat around radios and listened to the news from the United Nations and in general, so that we knew what was going on. After two days it was obvious that practically nothing is going to happen at an international level. The Yugoslav police paid us a visit; they invited us to a hotel nearby, where they told us our options and said that we can stay in Yugoslavia.”
George says he had been considering emigration for a couple of years prior to 1968
“[When it came to emigration] one thing was easier for us, because for two years I had already guessed that there will be major economic problems in Czechoslovakia. Our factory was working at something like only 16% capacity. I thought I would have to emigrate for economic reasons. But of course the Russian invasion changed this into political reasons – that’s beyond debate.”
George’s first job in Chicago was as a draftsman
George remembers the Czech Engineers’ Club
“The Czech Engineers’ Club had meetings every month. I mostly went there from the time that I had a car, which I bought in 1970 (we were here only one year without a car; it took us one year to save for a car). So, when I had a car, I went there every month. They kindly accepted me as one of them, and of course I now had a source of information. The next time I was looking for a job – the head of the club was Eda Vachrlon – I helped him with invites and I did everything, and he helped me get into General Motors and then we were working on the same floor. Unfortunately, what I am talking about is all in the past, because these people were all older than me. Today, I am 81 and they are no longer alive. So, due to an insufficient number of members, this organization no longer exists.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History