Mila Saskova-Pierce (born Miluše Šašková), 1948
Mila Saskova-Pierce was born in Prague in 1948. Her mother, Miluše, was a high school literature teacher while her father, Vladimír, worked in a factory. She was raised in the Hloubětín district of the city along with her brother and her cousin, whom her parents adopted. After attendinggymnázium, Mila applied to Charles University, but says that her application was rejected because she applied for a course of study that was no longer available. She worked for one year, first at the municipal incinerator and then for the national funeral home. Mila’s second application to Charles University to study medical biochemistry was accepted and she began her studies in 1967. It was at this time, according to Mila, that she really began questioning the system and interacting with dissidents. During the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, a photograph of Mila protesting on Wenceslas Square was published in several Western publications – an event which she says ended her anonymity and threatened her future. Within a few days of the invasion, Mila left Czechoslovakia for Vienna, but returned to Prague that October. When she realized that the situation was not going to get better, she left the country once more. After a short stay in Vienna, Mila moved to Belgium. There she studied Slavic and Russian languages and journalism for one year at the University of Liège before transferring to the Free University of Brussels. She graduated in 1975 and completed a one-year program in language philosophy at the University of Leuven.
In 1976, Mila moved to the United States to begin a doctoral program in linguistics at the University of Kansas. She met her future husband, Layne Pierce, in the university library when they discovered both spoke Czech (he had studied the language in college). Mila and Layne married in 1977 and have two daughters. After finishing her PhD, Mila taught Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for two years. Since 1989, Mila has been a professor of Czech and Russian at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Mila is active in Czech organizations around Lincoln, including the Czech Language Foundation which aims to advance the teaching and appreciation of the Czech language. She is also involved in the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU), Lincoln Czechs and Czech-Nebraska. Mila believes that Czech-American culture is integral to the wider Czech culture and she hopes to ‘build a bridge’ between the two. Today Mila lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with her husband.
Mila grew up in the Hloubětín district of Prague
“It was the part of Prague that had domkáři. Those were associations of house owners, and they were quite virulently anti-communist. By the ‘50s, the most vocal people obviously were gone, exiled, sent to prison, and unknown, so it was a kind of underground rumble. But it was obvious people knew about it. People would pay attention to who was talking to whom, and so it was rather instructive to any little kid because, in spite of the propaganda, we knew that there was a sea of discontent, and so I grew up with this. Part of that part of Prague [Hloubětín] was the communist worker’s movement who agreed with the communists, and they would mainly meet in the local pub; in fact, in Předni Hloubětín there were one or two pubs for three streets, and they were well-populated in the morning and in the afternoon, and in the evening, three times as much. And those people, they would perhaps never put up with discussion about the fault of communists. And if you went into the big Hloubětín, just perhaps a 10 or 15 minute walk away, there you could hear that rumble. People, the underground, discontent, because people who owned the houses, very often what would happen would be that they would lose part of their house and the communists would just quite simply put some family into part of their building or part of their little house, and they wouldn’t ask for any permission essentially and so now you had to share quarters – your own in your own home – with somebody you didn’t know. And then, kind of an evil scheme that was hatched in some of the communist planning minds was to make sídliště – the housing development – and part of it, they destroyed those rodinné domky – family houses – and they would just take away the gardens and put a huge, monstrous panelák [prefabricated high-rise] and so the houses suddenly found themselves without a garden, standing in the middle of the development and they didn’t like it either. So obviously, there was a lot of discontent with which I grew up.”
Education in communist Czechoslovakia was lacking, according to Mila
“Humanistic sciences or history or even language – it was pitiful. It was absolutely pitiful. If I learned anything, it is because my father inherited filled bookcases from his parents and I essentially would read a book or two a day, perhaps four during the weekend. And also, my mom refused to get television, which means we didn’t have television and if you didn’t play volleyball with your friends, there was nothing to do but read, or raid grandma’s garden and eat her radishes, or eat the radishes and read, and so that was how I spent my childhood.
“Sciences, however, perhaps because many well-meaning educators exited and/or retreated in to the fields of science – and that was also my plan – the sciences were well-taught. We had many idealistic teachers and we knew that they were ideologically flawed, if judged by the communist measuring stick, and we loved them even more for that. We really had good scientific preparation.
“But humanistic subjects, boy was it pitiful. It was worse than if they didn’t teach us anything because factually it was not correct and the interpretation and even ways how to study were completely wrong. I didn’t know how to do research because essentially we were told to parrot what we were told, and even the parroting could have been potentially quite lethal, because the official policy was changing. They changed the official policy that we learned by heart and it wasn’t good anymore suddenly, so the first day of our school year, we would get glue and empty pages and we would actually slap empty pages of paper onto a page which we were supposed to erase from the memory of communist humanity. And we did it. We of course read through it very carefully before we did it.”
Mila discusses her reasons for leaving the country in August 1968
“By the time I was 19, suddenly I realized that there was a huge depth, a cavern, ready for exploration for me to find out what I was a product of, and I had the opportunity. Then came August 21  and I went to Václavské náměstí [Wenceslas Square] and, because at that time I was good-looking, there was a photo of me which appeared on the front page of Paris Match and in Europe in several Western publications, and obviously I wasn’t anonymous. I met the person who was overseeing the teachers in the school where I was studying, and suddenly she perked up as a communist. She made sure that I knew that she noticed me and so at that time suddenly I realized ‘I want to get out. I want to get out and I need to get out.’
“There were two reasons. One was they wouldn’t let me continue at school, and of course I knew that it was somewhere some farming cooperative that I would have to go to; and/or that I wouldn’t have a chance to grow intellectually and understand what was happening to my whole nation. To the literature, to the music, to the film. To the people, to their relationships. And because we were all raised with this admiration of the national reawakening – národní probuzení – I really felt defensive of whatever was Czech, whatever was Czech culture. The survival of the nation was… we were fed the worries of the survival of the nation, and suddenly I realized that communists were perhaps enemies of the survival of the nation, as far as highly educated, cultured, and democratically-cultured nation. So that was the moment when I decided I had to leave.”
Mila made the journey out of Czechoslovakia and into Vienna twice
“There was a friend who actually was British who had a car. He came to Prague before the occupation and he gave me a ride to Vienna, and I left with him. It was rather interesting and memorable – and there was another person in the car. We were in the car and there was one Russian tank in front of us and one Russian tank behind us, and I was just thinking ‘Do they have good brakes behind us?’ because there was no space if their brakes failed for us to escape the accident.
“We made it to Vienna and then from Vienna we started to get all kinds of rather optimistic news: students went on strike, professors were supporting students very often, and on and on. I was really homesick and I felt I needed to perhaps go back and reconnect with my friends, and the reconnection really didn’t happen. People were scared. The few people I knew who were straight, they were gone. Nobody knew where they went. They were gone to the West, and so I just then packed up once again and I left. I was able to leave – that was a completely crazy thing. An elderly gentleman provided me with a handwritten letter in which – he was Czech – in which he certified, or wrote, supposedly as a doctor, that my fiancé was dying in a Viennese hospital, and so I went for a výjezdní doložka [exit permit] which I got, and then I flew to Vienna. As I was coming through the airport, there was the guy who opened the list of people [who were not supposed to be allowed out of the country], there were names and names and names, and he goes [down the list] and he stops and I was there – I swear I was there – and he puts his finger by that line and he wishes me good luck. I had výjezdní doložka for four days. To me, it was a message.”
Being involved in Czech emigre groups is important to Mila
“I realized that culture is not only what we get from our parents; it’s this collective construct. We get something from them, we take it, we transform it, we add to it, we subtract from it whatever is not needed, is not usable, and we hand that new thing that we have lived, whether it was everyday existence and/or literature, music, visual arts, we hand it on to our children. And that culture depends on broad, democratic participation. If you don’t have broad participation, you cannot have the exclusive top, because the exclusive top depends on this growth towards the top of the pyramid, and I realized that if we don’t get engaged in this participation, we impoverish ourselves, we impoverish our neighbors, and we impoverish that part of the Czech culture that is living outside which is part of the diaspora. It’s my kind of quiet fight for the rights of the Czech diaspora to exist and be part of Czech culture, and so I tried also to communicate the achievements of this Czech diaspora to the kernel of the Czech culture, which happens to be in the Czech lands, and to motivate them into the re-acceptance of that part of their history. But not only that, to rebuild the bridge between the American Czech-ness, which was in so many ways instrumental and defining for the existence of modern Czechoslovakia, and build new bridges which would allow Czechoslovakia, and then the Czech lands after ’89, to reach once again the global community. Because after all, we can be the stepping stone.”
In the early 1980’s, Mila received American citizenship
“It was really wonderful. It was in Kansas City and during the ceremony of citizenship, the judge was reading the background of the people who applied for citizenship, just two or three sentences, and introduced each one of us. There was a Chinese guy and he says ‘Nuclear physics.’ Then he goes ‘Doctor from India.’ Then he comes to me and says ‘Czech linguist, PhD.’ And he says ‘We are gaining so much. Thank you for wanting to be American citizens.’ In addition to it, there were about 40 families who adopted Korean kids, and they were all girls in ruffles. They were all fidgeting; they were tiny, perhaps two years, three years old, sitting on the laps of their parents. The parents shedding tears and kissing them. Obviously they had been raising them for two or three years; they were their children. So it was a really happy occasion. All those happy, absolutely melting, parents and the few of us who were welcomed and thanked for willing to be American citizens and adding our value to the American nation. It was such an emotional thing.”
Category: Oral History