Joan Zizek (born Jana Rabasová), 1941
Joan Zizek was born in 1941 in Pardubice, eastern Bohemia. Her parents, Jaroslav and Růžena, had grown up in the small village of Buček, but moved to Pardubice when her father was offered a job as an agricultural bookkeeper. While still a young girl, Joan remembers air raids and shootings that occurred in Pardubice during WWII. She also recalls spending summers with her grandparents in Buček. She attended first grade in Pardubice, but shortly after the Communist coup in 1948, her father was warned that he was in danger of being arrested and the family (which now included her brother, Jerry Rabas) decided to flee the country. They left that night and crossed the German border near Cheb where they were picked up by German soldiers. When they were released (after her father bribed a soldier with a pair of nylon stockings), the family stayed in refugee camps for another 15 months. While in Ludwigsburg, Joan remembers small accommodations, attending school, and being sent to another camp in Switzerland for two weeks.
In August 1949, Joan and her family sailed to New York City, and then traveled on to Chicago where they lived with her mother’s aunt for a short time. Joan’s father found a job as the manager of a Sokol hall in the South Lawndale neighborhood where the family settled. Joan remembers this area as predominately Czech, with shops, restaurants, and a Czech movie theater. While her father became very involved in the Czech community, founding the Alliance for Czech Exiles in Chicago and holding leadership positions in the American Sokol Organization and the Moravian Society, Joan herself participated in Czech social activities like Sokol and summer camp. She became a U.S. citizen in 1963 and got married shortly thereafter to Russell Zizek whom she knew from the neighborhood; they had two children. In 1973, Joan returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time with her father and daughter and says she enjoyed the experience, especially returning to Buček. Today, Joan lives with her husband in Lemont, Illinois.
Joan recalls being a young girl in Pardubice during WWII
“I remember the bombing. We had a lot of air raids. We lived on the fifth or sixth floor, and we had to go to the cellar always, the coal cellar. We all had to sit and my parents always said ‘Don’t lean against the wall because it might jar you or something if a bomb lands.’ My mother was about eight months pregnant with my brother, so she had to keep going up and down these flights of stairs – there was no elevator in her pregnancy so that was really tough on her. I also remember that one time there was a big commotion outside on the street and the soldier – I don’t know who it was – were after somebody, and they shot him right in the street, several men. That was kind of scary for me. Then one time – I had to walk to school past a church, it was like a churchyard – and apparently there was a bombing or some shooting there, and they had a bunch of bodies laying on the church ground, covered with cloth, and I had to walk through there to get to school and it really scared the heck out of me.”
The family left their home in the middle of the night in April 1948
“We went west to the town or city of Cheb, which was on the Czech-German border, and then from there we had to walk to get to the next German crossing at night. We hired a lady that helped people get across the border and it was all at night. My brother was drugged with sleeping medication so he wouldn’t cry or start talking while we were walking and my father carried him in a sheet, like a sack on his back. The one night when we were doing that, my father tripped over a stump – because this was the through the forest – tripped over a stump and cut his shin. So the lady took out her flashlight to look at how bad it was and several yards away must have been a trail where two German soldiers were coming off duty walking back to their station, and they saw the light in the woods so they started yelling ‘Halt’ and something else in German. So they came rushing up there to us and they lined us up and we had to put our hands up and they searched everyone. I was at the end and they had rifles and pistols and I thought ‘Oh we’re gonna get shot,’ I was really scared, and I did have some money, like a koruna in my coat pocket and I thought ‘If they find it they might shoot me.’ So carefully, I stuck my hand slowly in my pocket, took out the coin, dropped it, and stepped on it with my shoe so they wouldn’t find it. But they didn’t shoot us but we did have to go to prison. They took us to prison.”
After a short time in prison, the Rabas family was released
“He [my father] offered the main officer there at the prison a pair of nylons, which my mother received – she had an aunt living in Chicago and she sent her a pair – and this officer was going to get married soon, so my father tried to bribe him with the nylons for his bride, and the officer accepted it. They let us go, but they told us ‘Now go back to Czechoslovakia, don’t go any further.’ But we didn’t listen and we kept going.”
Joan spent one year in the Ludwigsburg refugee camp
“The living conditions, I don’t think they were too bad, but they were very tiny. You had a tiny room with a table and chair I think, and I think there was a communal kitchen. We did go to school there, the kids were able to go to school. Some of us kids got very skinny because the food wasn’t the best, and they decided to send a few of us to a camp in Switzerland for I think it was two weeks to fatten us up. But I didn’t have a very good time there because there were children there from different countries, a lot of different languages, and there were some older girls that were quite a lot older than me that used to kind of pick on me, so I did a lot of crying there instead of being happy there.”
While growing up in Chicago, Joan participated in Czech social activities
“I was in Sokol for a long time and I enjoyed that. Went to summer camp, they had a summer camp and I was there all summer. The one from Sokol Havlicek was in Crystal Lake which is about 40 miles north of here. Most of the kids that were there were of Czech descent, not necessarily ones that came over. So we did a hike in the morning or we went swimming in the morning to the beach, and then we had lunch, and then we did crafts, went swimming again. A certain night we had movie night and another night it was dances, and it was a lot of fun. It was a very nice camp.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History