Michael Svoboda, born 1943
Michael Svoboda was born in Prague in 1943. As a young boy, he moved with his family to Komarov in Moravia and then returned to Prague at the age of seven. Michael’s father, Jan, was an engineer who worked as a manager in industrial production factories. His mother, Eva, worked full-time as an office administrator, and Michael and his older sister were often watched by their maternal grandmother. Michael attended gymnázium in Prague; however, he admits that his attitude toward the authoritarian government led to a less than stellar high school record. After graduating, Michael worked as a mechanic for two years before being admitted to university, where he studied engineering.
In 1964, Michael began traveling outside the country. During several trips to Yugoslavia with his then-wife, Michael became acquaintances with people who lived in Western countries, and eventually garnered an invitation for a visit to Austria. This invitation allowed Michael and his wife to obtain passports and exit visas and, in the summer of 1966, they took the train to Vienna. After a few days there, the pair hitchhiked to Italy, where they claimed asylum and spent seven months in refugee camps in Trieste and Latina.
Aided by the International Rescue Committee, Michael arrived in New York City in February 1967. He quickly found a job and settled into life in the United States. He began taking English classes and, seven months after arriving, started classes at City College, from which he graduated with a degree in math education. Michael spent his career as a junior high and school teacher in the New York City public schools.
Over ten years after leaving, Michael made his first trip back to Czechoslovakia. He has made a point to return often – for many years, Michael made the trip once a year. He is a dual citizen. Since his retirement, Michael has become more involved in the Czech community in New York, enjoying events at the Czech Center and National Bohemian Hall. He also spends his time with the arts, acting, sculpting and attending galleries and exhibitions. Today, Michael continues to make his home in New York City.
Michael talks about his father
“My father was a member of the Communist Party and so was my mother, but I never quite believed in the sincerity of his devotion. But, nevertheless, that’s what he was.”
Do you know when they joined?
“1945. Between the Wars, he was a bona fide member of the middle-class bourgeoisie, but I know nothing of his political affiliations then; I just know that he joined the Communist Party after the War. That’s all I know. And he used to talk about being investigated by the Nazis regarding industrial espionage and sabotage. He used to talk about that. But he was never jailed by the Nazis; I guess he passed the investigation.”
That was probably because of his work?
“Yes. Quite, yes. Because he was in management of the factory, so he had some responsibilities. So they were hoping to find some things from him. He used to talk about that quite often.”
Michael explains the effect his attitude toward communism had on his schooling
“I was beginning to recognize, in my teen years, the nature of the Communist regime, and it somehow made me very negative; I had a negative attitude and of course they [Michael’s parents] knew it. It also reflected in my attitude in high school. As a consequence, I was not a very good student. I saw the school and the school administration as an extension of the regime, and so I was very negative and I didn’t get very good grades at all. I was just muddling through, but I was not a very good student at all. I could have gotten a great education; but I took a chop at that later. I remember when I started going to college eventually – engineering school in Prague first and then America later – I had to literally learn to study because I didn’t form those study habits from high school at all.”
In 1965, Michael was able to permanently leave Czechoslovakia
“The next year we were able to travel to Yugoslavia, and we received on the trips to Yugoslavia further world exposure and met people from the West – from Italy, from Germany – and furnished invitations to their countries, which was a requirement for us to get permission to travel West, which was very difficult. But we succeeded in 1966 in getting so-called exit visas to Italy and Austria based on this invitation and based on many earned permissions from various organizations, like school organization, street organization, various neighborly organizations which had to recommend our travel. So it took quite an effort to obtain a passport and this exit visa, but nevertheless we succeeded in that in the summer of ’66.”
With his then-wife, Michael crossed the border by train into Austria
“We arrived in Vienna and spent four days in Vienna, staying with a friend. But we didn’t feel safe there to ask for political asylum because Vienna was too close to home and we heard about Communist agents roaming the city. So we proceeded; we got on the road and we hitchhiked to Italy. We arrived in Milan, went to the police, and told them in my very, very primitive Italian that we want political asylum. ‘Ah, well, you have to go to Trieste,’ he explained, which is where the refugee camp was. So we got on Autostrada and hitchhiked to Venice, stopped in Venice, hitchhiked on to Trieste, went to the police, and they took us to the camp.”
Michael visited Czechoslovakia in 1990, shortly after the fall of communism
“Free country, it was, but still very few changes, relatively, on the surface.”
It was an exciting time.
“Yes it was. It was indeed. People were happy and hopeful.”
Did you have any particular expectations for them?
“I pretty much saw what I expected, which was people were breathing more freely and they were smiling more and they were hopeful and they were looking forward to their future.”
Category: New York City, Oral History