Michal Tauvinkl, born 1953
Michal Tauvinkl was born in Brno in 1953. He grew up living with his mother who worked as an accountant, his father who taught physical education and geography at a vocational school, and his older sister. In his youth, Michal enjoyed hiking with his parents and playing sports. He also loved to read. When he was nine years old, Michal and his family visited relatives in Vienna – a trip that Michal says had a ‘big impression’ on him. After graduating from gymnázium, Michal worked one year in construction and then enrolled at VUT (University of Technology) in Brno. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering and began working in this field.
In June 1987, Michal and his then-girlfriend Zuzana bought a trip to Yugoslavia which included a one-day boat ride to Venice, Italy. In anticipation of this event, Michal smuggled some foreign currency and documents in his luggage. They successfully made it to Venice with their passports and claimed asylum and were sent to a refugee camp near Rome. Michal says the conditions in the camp were ‘awful’ and the pair decided to leave. They took the train to Austria (but crossed the border on foot as they did not have permission to enter the country) where they were sent to Traiskirchen refugee camp. After a few days there, they moved to a guesthouse where they lived for 15 months with other refugees.
In September 1988, Michal and Zuzana traveled to the United States. They were sponsored by a church group in Raleigh, North Carolina, who helped them secure an apartment and a car. After a few months, Michal found a job as a draftsman at an engineering company. He took English language lessons and completed a professional degree in civil engineering from a local college. After five years, Michal and Zuzana moved to Wilmington where they stayed for another five years. They had a daughter and moved to Detroit. Michal worked at an engineering firm for a few years and, in 2005, moved to the Chicago area. Today he enjoys attending and photographing events put on by the Czech Consulate in Chicago. He received his American citizenship in 1995 and calls America ‘my homeland.’ Michal lives in Harwood Heights, Illinois.
Michal talks about the hobbies he had when he was younger
“Sport – that was really my hobby. Skiing, and later on I did windsurfing. I built by myself the whole board, so we were doing some windsurfing on the lakes. Other than that, sport was the big escape for people. Camping, going out to the forest, because everybody was leaving the city and going to – they called it a chalupa [cottage]– and going to villages and escaping from the city.”
Michal recalls a vacation he took with his family
“In 1962 we went to Vienna and I was nine years old, and when you crossed the border – everything in Czechoslovakia was kind of drab, gray and brown – we went to Austria and it was like a different world. The gas stations with the colorful flags and colors everywhere and new cars. I think that left a huge impression on me. [I thought] ‘I want to live here,’ you know? And Coca-Cola and fries! Eating fries was like ‘Wow.’ It was amazing. That definitely had a big impression on me. It was just once. The funny thing was we had really little pocket money, so we were traveling in Austria by hitchhiking on the highway. It was pretty cool. My dad, he spoke German fluently, because he was born there. Some people let us sleep in their houses. It was great. It was so special.”
Michal remembers the changes that came with the Prague Spring
“It was amazing. Suddenly you can read. There were new magazines, every month, coming out; new information. People were talking on the radio and on TV about what happened in the ‘50s in the Czech Republic, when they executed any opposition and [had] the show trials. I was 15 years old, but it had a great impression on me; I just hated communists. Then the Russians came in August, and it took like two years to break everybody, and that’s my disappointment with the Czech nation, that we gave up way too easily I think. I’m not saying that we should fight, because we didn’t have a chance, but what happened was people renounced their opinion really quickly. And I think it was much worse in the ‘70s maybe than in the ‘50s, although there were no executions or anything like that. But it was like the dark ages, culturally and morally. Yeah, I think the ‘70s was a really bad time, and when we saw the movie about Milos Forman [What doesn’t kill you…], he was talking about it and he said ‘There was no hope; it will be there forever.’ But 1968 was just amazing. It was so refreshing and everything.”
Michal took a trip to Yugoslavia in June 1987 and was able to secure a day trip to Venice while there
“We boarded the ship to Venice and we had a big luggage – for a one-day trip to Venice! And everyone was looking at us and, honestly, I was scared. I was really scared. Because you don’t know what to expect, you are leaving everything behind you, and so I didn’t enjoy this sailing across the sea too much. We got to Venice and they said ‘You from Czechoslovakia, there’s one gate and everybody else goes to the other gate,’ and they don’t even open the [other] passports, like Dutch and German; they just went through. And I felt like ‘That’s the reason I have to leave’ because it was so humiliating. I felt justification, like ‘I have to leave this.’ But the Italians told me, ‘You don’t need, for a one-day trip, this huge luggage, so put it back on the ship.’ Another thing, they left our passports on the ship. So I said ‘Ok’ and I took the bag with money and laminated [documents] inside and I went to the toilet, and I had a little pocket knife and I was ripping this bag to get the money and stuff out. I was so scared, but I got it out.
“So we went to Venice and we asked for asylum, and they said ‘No, don’t do it now. Come back when you are coming back and then you can do it.’ So we are wandering across Venice and we went to St. Mark’s Piazza and there were all these tourists having a great time, and we were kind of desperate. So we went back, but we didn’t have our passports, so one Italian guy offered to go to the ship to pick up the passports and some luggage, but he brought the luggage of some other person, so it was a mess; it was complicated. And after that, the Italians took us to the police station, they did a short interview with us, and they gave us tickets to Latina, which was a refugee camp close to Rome.”
In September 1988, Michal arrived in North Carolina
“Our sponsors were a group of people from the United Methodist Church in North Carolina, in Raleigh, and it was just a group of fantastic people. Me and Zuzana, my ex, we are not religious people. I wouldn’t say we are atheist; I believe in something spiritual, but I am not necessarily Catholic or Baptist. But these people, they saw one paper with a really bad photo of us, and they decided ‘We want to sponsor these people.’ When we got to the airport, one of them took us to his home; we stayed there for two days; they found an apartment for us. They paid for an apartment for us for six months, they paid for our insurance, they gave us a car, they provided furniture for our whole apartment. Everything. The furniture, every piece was different, but who cares? And when we told this to our friends and relatives in Czechoslovakia, they couldn’t believe it. They said ‘What do you they want for it?’ I said ‘Nothing. They want to help.’”
Following the fall of communism in November 1989, did Michal consider returning to Czechoslovakia?
“I know people that went back right away, but I never had any intention to go back because I was so impressed with Americans, with their hospitality, and how they accepted us. That’s the major difference, I feel. And I’ve had big arguments with Czech people about like ‘Be proud that you are Czech,’ and I said ‘You know what, this is my homeland.’ I was treated so well here and when I go back I just don’t feel it. So no, I never had any desire to go back.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History