George Skoda (born Jiří Škoda), 1927
George Skoda was born in Prague in 1927. His father, Josef, studied accounting and held several jobs in that field, and also owned a business in the city. His mother, Louisa, worked as a stenographer before getting married and later stayed home to raise George. After elementary school, George began studying at an English gymnázium, which was closed down by the Nazis in 1941. He then transferred to a Czech school, which was also closed, and entered an industrial school. In the waning months of WWII, George was recruited to dig ditches near Olomouc for the German war effort. After a short time, with the end of the War imminent, George escaped from his work detail and returned to Prague. After liberation, he finished school and, in 1947, entered ČVUT (Czech Technical University in Prague) to study mechanical engineering.
Following the Communist coup in February 1948, George decided that he didn’t want to ‘live under another occupation’ and left the country. After visiting a Sokol camp in southern Bohemia that July, George and a friend crossed the border into Germany. He spent several months in Regensburg and Schwäbisch Gmünd refugee camps; he then signed up with the European Volunteer Workers group and traveled to Britain where he was assigned to work in a brickyard in Peterborough. George worked there for over two years waiting for a visa to the United States.
After receiving a visa, George sailed to New York in February 1951. He began working in a plastics factory before being drafted into the U.S. Army in July. George served in the Army for two years, one of which was spent in Germany working as a cartographer. After his discharge, George worked as a draftsman for an engineering company in New Jersey for one year and then moved to Malden, Massachusetts. In 1955, George married his wife, Ludmila, also a Czechoslovak émigré, whom he had met in New York. They had two children, Peter and Sandy, whom they raised speaking Czech.
In 1962, George – who says he had always wanted to move to California – found a job at Stanford University working on a linear particle accelerator, the longest in the world. After five years there and a short stint in Philadelphia, George returned to California to work for GE’s nuclear energy division. In 1992, he retired from full-time work, but continued to act as a consultant until 2011. George also continued his education in the United States, earning a degree in engineering and management from Northeastern University and an MBA and master’s in mechanical engineering from Santa Clara University. Now a widower, George enjoys traveling and spending time with his children. He lives in Santa Clara, California.
George did not tell his family of his plans to leave in 1948
“My parents were on vacation at that time, and I was supposed to go – well actually I did – to a Sokol camp down in southern Bohemia, so they thought I was at Sokol camp. And the reason I didn’t tell them was, I said, ‘Well, if I get caught and they interrogate my parents, my parents can honestly say ‘We didn’t know about it.’’ So it was obviously a great shock when they came back from vacation, and they didn’t hear from me for about six weeks. Of course my mother was [thinking] ‘Is he killed somewhere?’ or ‘Where is he?’ Because the mail at that time… There was no Germany; there was a U.S. occupation zone, French, English. So we had to write to a guy in Switzerland and he had to write to somebody in Czechoslovakia [to say] that we are okay. So that took six weeks, seven weeks for the mail and so finally they got [notice] that ‘Oh yeah, they are okay.’”
George remembers crossing the border into Germany on foot
“We tried several places. Well, we inquired; we didn’t try. Šumava was one of them, and we knew some people and they said ‘Well, there were some people that crossed here, but there were some people who got caught over there,’ and then finally a friend’s friend said ‘Well there’s people crossing over at Bor u Tachova.’ I had never been there before. I didn’t know the countryside, but I had a map and a compass and it was a chance we took. The border guard came five minutes after we crossed; as a matter of fact, when we were crossing, I heard somebody hollering, some dog barking, and what sounded like shots. But we said ‘Oh the heck with it’ and we just kept going.”
And there was no barbed wire? It wasn’t like it got later?
“No. There was a meadow and a granite marker, and one side was ČS and the other was D, Deutschland. That was it. And there were Germans drying hay on the other side.”
It was difficult to receive news of Czechoslovakia in letters, says George
“There was a Czech newspaper, České slovo, that was issued in Munich which I subscribed to, so we were pretty well informed of what was going on. My parents and people that I knew didn’t write anything political because a lot of the letters were censored. My father said they got [letters] that the envelope was cut and [said] ‘This is officially censored’ so we never talked about politics. When I was in England and there was, not a girlfriend, but a girl I was interested in at one time. Her father was actually a general in the Czech Army. I sent her a letter and she sent me a postcard written in English that said ‘There’s a lot of problems’ and this and that. I didn’t realize it, but I sent another letter, and she sent me a postcard that said ‘I forbid you to write to this address,’ her father being in the Army. And he was fairly high up – Armádní generál or something. She said ‘If you want to write, write through a friend of mine.’”
George says there was a ‘large’ Czech community in New York when he arrived in 1951
“We went to the Sokol to exercise once or twice a week, but that was about the only thing. I don’t know if you know, but at that time there was a large Czech community in New York and it was between First and Third Avenue and something like from 62nd Street to 75th Street. There were Czech butchers and Czech bakers. A lot of these people immigrated to the United States in 1922, ’23, ’24, ’25… As a matter of fact, I lived with a family whose name was Koch – he was a carpenter – and he immigrated to the United States in 1924, so there were old, what they call, usedlíci [settlers]. It was interesting; these people immigrated to the United States for economic reasons. The new wave that came in, we escaped for political reasons, and they just couldn’t quite get it. There was, not a friction, but a lot of misunderstanding.”
George talks about the meaning of freedom
“Freedom is a word that’s a lot of little things, and some big things. Freedom of expression. I mean, you can talk over here and you can say that the president is an idiot or not and people either agree with you or don’t agree with you, but nothing happens to you. Over there, under the communists, you ended up in a concentration camp. That’s one thing. Freedom of press. Over there, there was no freedom of press. Freedom of where you can live, how you can live. Freedom of where you want to go to school or don’t go to school. It’s a lot of these little things that are the difference. Under the communist regime; of course, the German regime too was much more regimented and controlled. So it’s not one big thing; it’s a lot of little things that make it happen.”
Category: Bay Area, Oral History