Maria Sefcik (maiden name Hrdinová), 1922
Maria Sefcik was born in Nové Zámky, Slovakia, in 1922. Her father, Bohumil, was a civil servant who had been posted to the region. When Maria was less than two years old, however, she moved with her parents back to the family home of Ratenice, Bohemia, as her father fell ill with tuberculosis and could no longer work. He died when she was six years old and her mother, Růžena, remarried. Maria moved with her mother to the nearby village of Mlčice to live with her stepfather and his four children. When Maria was eight, her half-sister Růžena was born. Just under two years later, Maria’s mother died; Růžena stayed with her father, while Maria was sent to live with a guardian family in Prušice. Maria says she was happy living on the Pivoňka family’s farm and, with the pension she received following her father’s death, she was relatively well off.
Maria wanted to go to university, but this idea was vetoed by her guardian. She went to a local judge to plead her case which, she says, was rejected on grounds of her guardian’s ‘wisdom.’ She eventually left the Pivoňka farm during WWII as she says one of the sons became too keen on her and so the situation became difficult. Maria moved in with a good friend she had met at hospodyňská škola (home economics school), called Marina.
In 1946, Maria responded to an advert in the paper posted by a Prague family in need of a maid. The family was headed by V. S. Klíma, who was subsequently sent to the Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington, D.C. to work there as a counselor. Maria moved to America with the Klíma family in 1947. Following the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, the Klímas decided to return to their homeland, while Maria applied for asylum in the United States. She was helped to do so, she says, by former ambassador Juraj Slávik. Maria went to work as a maid for an older American couple – Mr. and Mrs. Hills. In 1949, Maria wed a former Czechoslovak Embassy employee, Ludvik Sefcik, who had also sought asylum in America following the Communist takeover. The couple had five children. The Sefciks set up in business with a small lady’s clothing store in a building attached to their home. After running the store for six years they rented it out. When they sold the shop in the 1970s, Maria went to work at Woodward & Lothrop, a massive department store and Washington, D.C. institution, often fondly referred to as ‘Woodies.’ She retired after 26 years. Maria says that America gave her the ‘opportunity’ to work in fields such as retail without a formal education.
Maria wanted to go to university, and had the money to do so, but her guardian would not allow it
“Because I was a person who would work for free over on the farm. That’s my opinion, I guess he meant okay but, at that time, many people didn’t have the education to go someplace else. That was like years ago.”
And maybe also because you were a girl?
“Not only that, many people were like that – both boys and girls. Because many guys didn’t have much opportunity, only to marry somebody else who had… to be again on a farm. You know, [another person] in the village and stuff like that. So I inherited some money from my parents, I had the opportunity, but I was not allowed. That’s it.”
Maria says state treasures from Prague were hidden in her local parish during WWII
“I remember, yeah I remember the priest – he was even talking to me later on, and I remember that they hid in Kostelec, in the church, treasures from Prague. And he showed me where it is. So nobody knew it, but he was the priest and he wanted to tell somebody, right?”
So during the War he told you that?
“Yeah, before the War they put it over there. Because over there there’s a castle in Kostelec, and in the chapel they put it under the chór [sacrarium], you know, like where you come in, they made storage over there. So I did see it, we used to go to chapel in the church, at like 9 o’clock, and it was different, so he told me why it was different. They put the… the government put the poklad z Prahy [treasures of Prague] over there.”
So, some valuable items?
Maria married her husband after he spent some time working as a cowboy in the American West
“My [future] husband was at the Embassy when the communists came, so all his friends quit and so he quit to. He decided to quit the Embassy and do something. And since he was like an idealist and he wanted to be a cowboy, he went to the West with his friend. And I mentioned before it was a very primitive job, so he decided not to be a cowboy and to work in construction, helping people build walls and all that stuff. So he was in St Louis for some time, and after that he was homesick, so he came back to Washington and he was working at the Slaviks – you know, who [had been] the ambassador – they had bought a house in the meantime, so they needed some renovation. So helped them to build it and stayed over there with them. And afterwards Mrs. Slavik rented to young girls, she was cooking there for them, and so he left and went to my friend’s house. Because in the meantime my friend from the Embassy stayed here too, and they bought a house on 15th Street. So I met him through that, and I decided to get married, so we got married in ’49.”
Maria says her husband found life as an emigre harder than she did
“Well I do, but since I was young I never had like a permanent home. He [my husband] was from Chodsko and he was very much more at home over there. Whereas I was here and there, I was not that steady in the Czech Republic. So I took it easier than he did.”
America gave Maria the opportunity, she says, to work in certain fields despite her lack of formal education
“Sure, because in the Czech Republic I could not go to work at Woodies like I could here, I would have needed to have the education, to have the schools for it, and here I just had rather the practice because I had had my own store. They took me immediately. There was much more opportunity here than I would have had over there. And afterwards, even in the office, without schools and stuff like that, in the Czech Republic it would be impossible – you need to have the school, you need to have the paper to prove that you could do it. Here it was like ‘You can do it? Okay, try!’”
Category: Oral History