Jan Pala (born Ján Pala), 1952
Jan Pala was born in Bratislava in 1952. His mother, Paulina, worked as a salesperson, while his father (also called Ján) worked as a clerk in Bratislava’s Carlton Hotel. Jan was the second of three sons – his younger brother, Lubomir, immigrated to the United States several years before Jan. In Brno, Jan trained to become an electrician. He was then conscripted to the Czechoslovak Army, which stationed him in Pardubice for two years from 1973 to 1975. He left the Army as a candidate for Communist Party membership; he says he became a card-bearing member in 1976 so as to secure better housing for his wife and his newly-born son, Kristian. Once the family received a new apartment, Jan left the Party. When Jan and his first wife had a daughter in 1979, again they looked for a new, larger home, but this was more difficult now that Jan was no longer a Communist Party member.
Jan took a job as an electrician at the TESLA factory in Bratislava which came with accommodation in the suburb of Karlova Ves. He says that this was an excellent place to raise children, as it was surrounded by forest and provided good conditions for walking and hiking. Jan says that it was in a bid to secure ‘a better future for his son’ that he first thought of emigrating. When he and his first wife divorced, he started making plans to emigrate with his son in earnest, but the secret police confiscated his passport a week before the journey was set to take place. Several years and several attempts later, in September 1989, Jan and his son took a bus trip, ostensibly to watch the soccer team Plastika Nitra play an international match against FC Köln in Cologne, Germany. Jan says that they did not attend the football match, but instead applied for asylum in West Germany. They remained in Germany for 15 months and applied for an U.S. visa, which was rejected on grounds of Czechoslovakia’s newly democratic status (the Velvet Revolution having taken place in November 1989). After one and a half years, the pair had to leave Germany. They returned to Czechoslovakia where they applied for tourist visas to the United States. Jan and Kristian arrived in Chicago, Illinois (where Jan’s brother Lubomir was living) on December 21, 1990. Jan refers to his first days in the United States as ‘great’ – his brother took him to the Slovak Club in Berwyn, where he came to play music on a regular basis. He also performed regularly at the Czech-owned bar U čtyř stehen, and joined the Czechoslovak soccer club Sparta Chicago. Jan’s first job was at Pilsner Restaurant in Berwyn. He stayed there for around one year until he found work as an electrician.
Jan became an American citizen in 1999. Today, he lives in Schaumburg, Illinois, with his second wife Luba. The pair speak Slovak at home, and Jan says he maintains Slovak traditions through the food that he eats and the music he continues to enjoy playing.
Jan remembers the Warsaw Pact invasion
“I was 15 then, and we were curious. I went into town, where they were shooting. Then we went to the airfield. We gave the Russians beer and wine and they gave us gasoline for our motorbikes. We brought them some cigarettes too. Then there was shooting on SNP Square – it looked very dangerous and so after that I didn’t actually go into Bratislava. We met the Russian soldiers at the airfields in Vajnory and Ivanka. In fact, we only went to see them to get gas – we were young boys with Pioneer motorbikes.”
Jan spent two years in the Czechoslovak military
“I got married young and I didn’t want to do military service. My wife had a well-positioned member of the family who got me a so-called modrá knižka [lit. blue book – certificate of exemption from military service]. But then because the Russians had come, the new Czechoslovak government recalled all of these books and we were all re-conscripted – or rather sent to the doctor for another physical. And so when I went to this second physical they realized that I am totally healthy and they sent me for two years to the military. My military service was spent with the pilots in Pardubice at the airfield. It was altogether fine; I got to travel home often.”
Jan and his son were refugees in Germany for 15 months
“I didn’t work. The other emigrants did work, but it was with the risk that you earn money, but if you got caught, you would be deported from Germany, and I couldn’t let that happen. So I didn’t work, and we lived on the money I received from the German government as support, plus I had my own money, and my brother Lubos [Lubomir] sent me dollars from the United States to help us. So in fact we did pretty well. We were staying in hotels. I wasn’t in any camps, because I was with my son, and so the German government considered us to be a family, and families were placed in hotels.”
Jan regularly played music at the Slovak Club in Berwyn
“On Fridays, we would play in the bar of the Slovak Club. We had some very good experiences there. People sang, drank, remembered.”
How many people went to the Slovak Club at that time?
“At that time, lots. But the club’s bar was where people hung out. The bar was full until 1am or 2am. We also played events in the bigger hall next door – parties, we played a wedding there and various events. At that time we played quite frequently at picnics in the summer, for Sparta, for the Moravians, for the Slovak Club. So there were a lot of events, which dropped off in time.”
Jan talks about why he left Czechoslovakia
“My reason for emigrating was because I wanted to ensure a better future for my son and – for myself – I wanted to put all the money that I earned into traveling. I was lucky too that I met my wife, who is an air-hostess. She flies for American Airlines on international flights, so she also likes to travel. So you could say that we make the most of it. I’ve already seen a chunk of the world that I would definitely, if I had stayed in Czechoslovakia or Slovakia, never have been able to see.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History