Martin Herman (born Martin Heřman), 1948
Martin Herman was born in České Budějovice in 1948. He was only a few months old when he moved to Prague, where his father, Karel, had a job at a glass export company. While Martin and his siblings Jana and Peter were growing up, his mother, Jana, stayed at home, and Martin remembers her hosting many parties. Later, Jana had several good jobs, first working in a hotel and then in the Ministry of Finance. As a boy, Martin participated in recreational and competitive sports; he was on a basketball team, and also enjoyed soccer, tennis, and hockey. After elementary school, Martin attended Secondary Agricultural School in Čáslav. He graduated in 1968 and spent one year working, traveling, and studying for the entrance exams for university. Martin was in Vienna during the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, and he says that he considered staying in Vienna, but his mother convinced him to return home. In the fall of 1969, he started studying at VŠE (University of Economics, Prague). While in school he worked as a night watchman and wrote summaries of foreign economics articles for the National Academy of Sciences. He also learned English and played tennis regularly.
Well before his graduation from university in 1974, Martin had been thinking seriously about leaving the country. A very close family friend, Litti Manzer, lived in Miesbach, Bavaria, and Martin decided to get a tourist visa to visit her. He did not have any luck obtaining the exit permit until an acquaintance with connections assisted him. In April 1975, Martin arrived in Miesbach and quickly found a job playing, coaching, and teaching lessons at a tennis club. Martin says that his time in Germany ‘exceeded expectations’ and that he lived in ‘extreme luxury;’ however, it was always his desire to go to the United States. He received sponsorship from the International Rescue Committee and arrived in New York in October 1976. Martin was accepted to a doctoral program in economics at Cornell University which he started in January 1977. A summer job at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. led to a full-time job there in 1978, first as a research assistant and later as an economist. Having left Cornell to pursue his career, Martin finished his master’s degree at George Washington University. In 1980, Martin married his wife Eva, a process which he says was made very complicated because she was told she needed permission from the Czechoslovak government to marry a foreigner. They were able to convince a German judge to waive this requirement, and they married at City Hall in Miesbach. Martin traveled a lot for work, but he says he was repeatedly denied requests for a visa to visit Czechoslovakia. After numerous attempts, in 1984, he was able to visit Prague.
Martin’s work at the World Bank put him in touch with leading Czech economists, politicians, and businessmen; upon retiring in 1998, he looked for business opportunities in the Czech Republic. Martin conceived of and is managing the American Fund for Czech and Slovak Leadership Studies’ Young Leaders and Young Talents programs; these programs provide opportunities for young people in the Czech and Slovak Republics to pursue a course of study and/or work in the United States. Today, Martin is an international consultant, and he lives in Arlington, Virginia, with his wife, Eva.
Although his father tried to convince him to stay in the country, Martin wanted to leave
“He [my father] always tried convincing me, ‘I know you don’t like the situation in this country, but you’re born here, you should stay here, you should change things here.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t think I can do that,’ and I was telling him ‘Look, if I really get involved, then I’ll be in jail.’ At that time, it was very easy – the communist police were very smart. They would not nail you down on some anti-communist activities. If you worked somewhere they would set up a scheme, let’s say you misappropriated some money and they will nail on that, and there will be no way of getting out of that. So I knew all that and I said, ‘Well, I think I need to really work hard to get out of here as soon as possible.”
Martin was in Austria in August 1968 during the Warsaw Pact invasion
“In Vienna, some guy I met said, ‘Well, do you want to make some money?’ I said ‘Sure.’ Right on the 22nd of August, I started selling newspapers – Wiener Express Extra Ausgabe. Everybody was hungry to get papers. I didn’t know Vienna that well, but I thought I need to go somewhere where there’s a lot of traffic, so I put myself right on the corner of Kertnerstrasse and Am Graben – it’s very busy, it’s the center of Vienna. I stood there, I had a little outfit and I put a Czech flag here, and the Viennese were so generous. They’d say ‘You are from Prague and you are already working here. That’s wonderful.’ The newspaper was one shilling and they would give me 100 shillings – ‘Here’s 100 shillings, you will need it.’ And so I made tons of money right there.”
Martin recalls learning how to speak English
“I remember all the time, I had BBC World Service on the radio all the time, and it worked pretty well. So, very nice British English, and they used to have these sessions for teaching English, and it was wonderful. And I taped it and repeatedly listened to it. I started reading when I was a night watchman. My first book I read was The Graduate. Even though I didn’t understand it really, I understood maybe half of it. I just read it, and reread it again. That’s how I studied. Then I also somehow managed to get some other people interested and we started this English speaking club, and I was a total beginner. Twice a week, sometimes three times a week, we met in the evening, just like a book club or something. Similar set up, dictation, spelling, some discussion on a topical issue, and then at the end, everyone had to say a little story. It was very challenging for me, because I was way down. So I remember, guests in the hotel, they left sometimes Reader’s Digest or some books so my mother brought it home. So from Reader’s Digest at the bottom in the footnote, they had little stories, three or four lines. So I memorized that and used that – ‘This is my story for today’ you know.”
With some friends, Martin became involved in the black market
“A couple of times we did a big job, that was in the early ’70s – ‘73,’74,’75 – scientific calculators became a big thing, and there were not really so many in Czechoslovakia. So we had a friend in Berlin. His father was at the embassy there, and somehow they had some permission – they could go to West Berlin. He had a son there that studied and he was a good friend of ours. So what we did is we would get an order list from engineers and people that wanted these calculators. We had a catalog and we got the list. People gave us money up front; we got money on the black market, made a good exchange there, and went to East Germany – that was a very cheap flight, Prague to Berlin – gave our friend the list, in the afternoon he brought us the calculators. Maybe we stayed one day or two days, bought some other things, like good shoes or something they didn’t have, a little different. And then went back to Prague, because people knew us at the airport and we had some friends there. They had very good sausages in Germany, or some pate. So we brought that to some of the airport people and they just let us go through, we had a bag full of calculators.”
Martin describes the process of acquiring a tourist visa
“In order to go as a tourist, I needed to get what is called výjezdní doložka, and it’s sort of an obstacle course that you had to take. You had to have a stamp from your supervisor at work, you submit this to the bank, the bank gives you stamps – you get eight dollars a day for ten days, so you get 80 dollars – and then you go to the police and the police will issue an exit visa, and then you go the embassy of that country and they will give you a tourist visa. That sounds very simple, but it was very, very difficult.”
Arriving in New York City in 1976 was a shock for Martin
“I got into this hotel, and my god, you know. Coming from extreme luxury, beautiful flowers in the windows and everything, to this hotel which was for welfare recipients on the last leg and drug addicts. So I end up in this room, I want to take a shower because I’m all sweaty, open the shower, and cockroaches all over the place, I thought ‘Oh my god, what is this?’”
Category: Oral History