Martin Holub (born 1938)
Martin Holub was born in Prague in 1938. His father, Ján, was a lawyer who, after the Communist coup in 1948, was not allowed to continue practicing and sent to work at a cement factory. He later worked in a photography lab and then as a librarian at the Architectural Institute in Prague. His mother, Miloslava, has also studied law and went on to become a rather well-known art historian. During WWII, Martin spent a lot of time in Moravia where his mother’s parents lived. He says that rather than feeling afraid during the War, he recalls events such as air raids as ‘fun’ due to the excitement.
In 1950, Martin’s mother was arrested on charges that she helped a relative illegally cross the border. After 18 months in prison, she was put on trial and released of all charges. While she was in prison, Martin was sent to a boarding school in Poděbrady, where he was a classmate of Václav Havel. Martin returned to Prague, graduated from high school and studied architecture at ČVUT (Czech Technical University in Prague). He went on to earn a postgraduate degree in architecture from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and worked for a state-owned building contractor.
Martin says that since graduating from university he had been hoping to travel to the West, applying for work abroad. Although he was frequently offered opportunities (particularly in Great Britain), he was repeatedly denied a visa. In 1967, Martin had applied for and been offered a job with the Greater London Council. To his surprise, he was given a visa and he left Czechoslovakia in August 1967. Although Martin planned to return to Prague after one year, he was still in London when Warsaw Pact troops invaded the country and decided to stay in the West. In January 1970, Martin took a job with an architecture firm in New York City and moved to the United States. He settled in Manhattan and opened his own private firm in 1971.
Martin first returned to Czechoslovakia in 1983 and then again following the fall of communism. With a friend living in Prague, he opened a branch of his company there and continued to visit his hometown yearly. Initially reluctant to seek out his fellow émigrés, in recent years Martin has become active in the Czechoslovak community in New York, including assisting in the renovation of the Bohemian National Hall. Today, Martin continues his architecture practice and lives in Manhattan.
In 1950, Martin’s mother was arrested. He explains the reason why
“Born on the wrong side of the tracks. Capitalists. Enemy of the people. That’s enough. The ostensible charge was that she helped one of her cousins to emigrate. But nothing was proved and 18 months later, after the trial, she was released. She considered herself very lucky. So all this was actually pre-trial custody. She was held in pre-trial custody for 18 months, from 1950 until late of 1951.”
Well, at least she had a trial.
“There was a trial, yes, and there was some semblance of legality because the charge was not proven and she was released.”
Although she was deemed innocent, Martin’s mother lost her apartment and had trouble finding a job
“Even though nothing was proven to her, to have been in prison was kind of a black stain on her reputation and she had difficulty finding a job. So we really struggled, but it’s one interesting proof of how resilient a child is, because I have no memories of hardship. I mean, she made it seem like fun. I remember, a week before the end of the month, she would just empty her wallet on the table and say ‘This is what we have to live on until the end of the month.’ And for me it was fun. I budgeted money per day, and I have no memory of any struggle or hardship because a child has no reference. Everything is normal.”
Martin talks about his architecture education
“It was pretty rigorous training. I had an opportunity to compare myself with others when I came to England, and we grew up as a complex. We grew up thinking we are in a cage, we are separated from civilization by this Iron Curtain and we don’t really know what it’s all about; we are just sort of cut off in the boondocks down here. And that made us… I spent hours in the technical library because, interestingly, even though there was censorship of course and the Western newspapers, Western magazines were not allowed to come in, the technical literature was. We couldn’t take it home, but the library of the technical museum had all the architectural magazines in the world – French, English, Italian, American magazines. So that’s where I was spending my time, familiarizing myself with the architecture in the West. So that, when I arrived in London, to the astonishment of my English colleagues, I knew more about contemporary English architecture than they knew. They started explaining to me about James Sterling, and I said ‘Oh yeah, I know about James Sterling. He did the Lester school and he did that and he did that,’ and they were totally flabbergasted. ‘How do you know this?’ ‘Magazines. Magazines.’”
In 1967, Martin was given permission to travel to London for what was to be a temporary job
“It was the beginning of Dubček’s Prague Spring, but not even Dubček knew it was the beginning of Dubček’s Prague Spring. But what we knew was that suddenly things started to be a little looser and the main witness was that I was allowed for the first time to leave – I couldn’t go even to East Germany; I never could go beyond the Iron Curtain – suddenly not just for a trip but for a year! It was unheard of. Unheard of. I thought it was a mistake, so I did not question. With my friend, I jumped into a car and drove to London. I thought I would be back in a year. At the time, I had no intention of emigrating for the rest of my life. If I let my fantasy run wild I thought ‘Well, if the first year would go well I might try to extend it for another year,’ and, at the time, to spend two years in London, it was the ultimate to think. Well, as it happened, at the end of the first year almost to the day Russians moved in. I didn’t take much imagination not to return when I saw tanks in Wenceslas Square.”
Similarly, Martin’s move to the United States was not intended to be permanent
“I arrived from London in January of 1970, again thinking this would be a temporary stay in America. Having lived in London for three years, the Brits kind of condition you into thinking that America is this cultural wasteland where everybody’s chasing money and no gentle soul could survive, and I bought it. American tourists on Oxford Street are doing a very good job to support this philosophy. So I truly thought that this would be another three or four years to get the taste of America, test myself professionally here, and then I would come back to civilization – civilization being London. I felt very comfortable in London. I had a good job, apartment. There was really no reason for me to leave, except this curiosity. I considered myself a citizen of the world and you cannot be a citizen of the world unless you’ve experienced America. Professionally it attracted me. When I opened architecture magazines in 1969 I liked what I saw better than what I saw in London. So I had this professional curiosity plus sort of the world curiosity. And very quickly, New York and I clicked and I had no second thoughts about ever returning to London.”
Martin says that he has not considered returning to Prague permanently
“I no longer fit in. It’s a very strange feeling, which cannot be unique among emigrants, that when I walk in Prague I feel like a tourist. It’s the town I was born in, I spent the first 28 years of my life, and still I don’t know really how it works now, having been out of there for 45 years. Life develops and the language changes and there are expressions I don’t know what they mean – Czech expressions. And the same thing, I don’t know which way the busses go and which way the streetcars go and I don’t know the names of the streets, so I am a tourist.”
Martin talks about his sense of identity
“I feel Czech-American. This is, I think, the only country you can feel that. Having lived three years in London before I came to America, I think even if I lived 50 years in England I would not be an English Czech, or Czech-English. I mean, that category does not exist. I’d be a Czech living in England, yes, but I don’t think I’d ever feel English. I’d be phony; whereas, legitimately here I feel American, but I am also a Czech. Again, it’s nothing unique about it. This country is composed of German-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, French-Americans and so forth. That’s what I think makes America different from other countries.”
Category: New York City, Oral History