Luke Vanis


Luke VanisLuke Vanis (born Lukáš Vaniš), 1971

Luke Vanis was born in Prague in 1971. His mother, Dagmar, was a high school math and art teacher and a freelance designer, and his father, Leo, was an art professor at Charles University. Luke’s parents divorced when he was young and his mother remarried shortly thereafter. Luke’s earliest memories are of walking to his grandmother’s house with his younger brother, Andy (born Ondřej). He also remembers enjoying time spent at his family’s country house. In 1980, Luke’s mother arranged a vacation for the family in Yugoslavia; once they were there, however, she immediately went to the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade and asked for asylum. Luke, his brother, mother and stepfather were sent to Austria, where they spent three months in a small village with other refugees. In November 1980, sponsored by family friends who lived in the Chicago suburbs, Luke moved with his family to the United States. After a short time living with their sponsors, Luke’s mother and stepfather found jobs restoring furniture and moved to Berwyn where they rented a basement apartment from another Czech family. Luke says that the Czech community of Berwyn helped his mother feel settled and helped the family a great deal.


Luke started fourth grade and says that he was a good student despite the language barrier; he became fluent within one year. After graduating from high school (one year early), Luke began work as a free-lance designer and photographer. He received an associate degree in art from the College of DuPage and a BFA from Northern Illinois University. Luke has had a successful career free-lancing for, among other clients, Enesco Corporation. He also works in real estate and as a photographer. Luke’s mother has also become a successful artist and designer during her years in the United States. In 1993, Luke returned to the Czech Republic for the first time. He calls this experience ‘phenomenal’ and is especially interested in medieval Czech history and architecture, and collects artifact replicas and antiques on his travels. Luke says, in recent years, he has made more of an effort to ‘deepen [his] roots’ and has been spending more time with the Chicago Czech community and keeping up his language skills. He calls his mother’s decision to move to the United States a ‘blessing’ and, today, lives in Naperville, Illinois.

Luke recalls growing up in Prague in the 1970s

“It was a subdivision of a bunch of condos and then we had a forest preserve behind the house, so I would love to go out there and ride a bike and go fishing and cause trouble and run around. It was a good place. I guess we spent a lot of time in the country as well. My parents had a cottage, and it was an old, old 1600s inn that was converted to a house, so it was very historic. It was two stories, maybe six rooms. You burnt coal in the bottom and you went out in the back and they had the cellar, so you could go down into this big hill that was dug out where the cellar was and you pumped the water by hand. My parents were remodeling it and rehabbing, so they put in all new hardwood floors and all that kind of stuff but when we escaped it was neglected, so when we came back to visit it was ransacked. We used to have a suit of armor in there; apparently somebody broke in and stole that, which is so sad. I remember when we went there last time, they had a thing that you pump the water with and I took the handle off and brought it home as a souvenir, so I have something from my old house.”

According to Luke, his mother decided to leave Czechoslovakia to seek a better life for her children

“What she really wanted to do or accomplish when she left the Czech Republic, is she wanted freedom. She wanted to be able to live her life and to do the job she wants to do to be able to provide a better life for me and my brother, and I think that was the biggest choice in her deciding to leave – to provide a better life for me and Andy because she just felt like we were stifled there, both in the schooling aspect of things and political. Just how the country was run, it was like you don’t have any ambition, you don’t have any drive to become a better person, a wiser, more mature individual. It’s so difficult out there to be able to make something of yourself, to be able to stand out and live your life, and she thought the freedom allowed in America would be a great, great asset for he and I to be a part of.”

While on the family vacation in Yugoslavia in 1980, Luke’s mother applied for asylum

“We got sent to Austria. So we had to go to Austria and we stayed there for three months at a little village, a very small tiny town, just very picturesque and beautiful. You had rolling hills; you had the meadows; you had the big trees in the back. It was so pristinely kept that people actually mowed the lawn inside the forest. It was just so bizarre. It was a little German cottage resort town we were in and there was a whole bunch of other immigrants there, a lot of them from the Czech Republic. So my mom knew a little bit of English before she left, so she was teaching the other people how to speak English, or at least to the best of her ability, so that was pretty cool and everyone enjoyed having her there. The government sponsored and paid for the lodging and food, but, as far as clothes and necessities like that, we didn’t have any additional funds for that, so people donated old chairs and they were made out of canvas, and so my would take the canvases and cut them down, she’d make her own frames, she’d buy some paints and then she’d go out in the countryside and she’d paint pictures of the countryside – cows, rolling hills, meadows, old farmhouses and just beautiful scenery, and then she would sell them locally at art fairs and to people that lived down there. She’d make a few extra bucks to provide to her family. So it was kind of an adventure.”

Luke describes his refugee experience

“I guess I didn’t grasp the concept of what a refugee means. Nowadays, when you look at refugees, they have refugee camps and they have tents and they have tens of thousands of people that are fleeing war-torn, disastrous areas, and I feel like we got so lucky not to be a part of that kind of refugee evacuation. We left the country for political reasons, and that’s not to say that bad things weren’t happening there, but we didn’t have bombs blowing up around us; we didn’t have the threat of hazardous biochemical weapons; we didn’t have people running in with AK-47s and shooting at us and things like that. So to be able to spend three or so months in Austria in a little quiet quaint village… I mean, we went to school there. I got to learn how speak a little bit of German; I used to be able to count to ten in German from what I remember. It was almost like a little mini-vacation for us because we didn’t really know what was expected or what would be going on in our life. But I wouldn’t say it was a negative experience by any means. I would say it was definitely positive and something that helped us grow and see a little different part of the world and enjoy what we had and also where we’re going and what we’re going to have because, like I said, if you see the worst in the world then you can really learn to appreciate what you have. Happiness isn’t about what you have; it’s about valuing what you have.”

Luke first returned to the Czech Republic in 1993

“Once I got out of college was the first time I went back to the Czech Republic. It was a gift from my stepdad to be able to go down and visit, so my mom and I went down there for about two, two and a half weeks. That’s the first time I went back and it was just majestic to be able to be in a place that was so absolutely gorgeous with the stained glass and the cathedrals and the castles and the armor and the knights and the winding streets leading to nowhere. The signage on there and the cobbled streets. It was just historically and aesthetically and architecturally a phenomenal place to visit.”

Leaving Czechoslovakia was a ‘blessing,’ says Luke

“I would like to say how much of a blessing it has been to be able to move to the U.S., to have that opportunity, because I think my parents, my mom especially at the time, took a huge risk leaving a country that she wouldn’t be allowed back in or, if she were to come back, she would be thrown in jail. To take a risk of the unknown, to move to a place that you don’t know the language of and you know two people in the whole country – it’s so strong, so adventurous, so kind-hearted for her to want to do that for us. I think that she’s an extremely intelligent, very strong woman to be able to pick up and leave and go to a country where everything is new, from the language to social interactions to work to habits – the driving is different out here, the locations, everything. And I think for her to sacrifice comfort and complacency and her friends, who she never got to see again, is just amazing.”

Luke gives his thoughts on what it means to be an American

“What I would like to think it feels like to be an American would be that you are here and you are reliant on yourself and you are available to make whatever life you would like to make for yourself. I feel that if you work hard, if you make the right decisions and you’re disciplined, if you strive for a goal, you have an opportunity here – pretty much more than any other country in the world – to be able to achieve that goal. The things in your way, typically, here are very minimal. And that’s not to say everybody can achieve a goal; I don’t think a lot of people here, unfortunately, have a goal to strive for. I don’t think a lot of people here have dreams. A common thing in immigrants, but an uncommon thing in regular Americans, is to be able to appreciate the freedom and the opportunity that you have to make something of yourself, to make a good life for yourself, to make some kind of a mark, to make your life count for something for yourself, for your family, for the next generation and for society in general. I guess I would like to see more of that; I would like to see people appreciate what they have an opportunity to be able to do here.”

Category: Chicago, Oral History