Paulina Porizkova (born Pavlína Pořízková), 1965
Paulina Porizkova was born in Olomouc in 1965 and grew up in the Moravian town of Prostějov. Her parents, Anna and Jiří, left Czechoslovakia in the wake of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion and settled in Sweden. Paulina remained with her maternal grandparents in Prostějov and says that her time with them was ‘delightful.’ Paulina’s parents, meanwhile, were attempting to reunite their family and gained attention in Sweden for their actions. After three years had gone by, they planned to ‘kidnap’ Paulina after flying into Czechoslovakia with the help of Swedish pilots. On her way to Prostějov, Paulina’s mother (who was traveling on a fake passport) was detained for speeding and arrested when her identity was revealed. Because she was several months pregnant, Paulina’s mother was released to her parents’ house and remained under house arrest. Paulina says that her father, who had remained in Sweden, had managed to keep their case in the media, which put pressure on the Czechoslovak government. In 1973, Paulina, her mother, and her brother were allowed to leave the country.
Paulina says that her parents divorced shortly after returning to Sweden and her mother worked as a midwife. Because they were not allowed to return to Czechoslovakia, Paulina’s family would travel to an Eastern bloc country each year to meet up with her relatives who remained behind. At age 15, Paulina signed with Elite Models and moved to Paris by herself to begin her modeling career. By 1983, Paulina had become ‘very in demand’ in the United States and moved to New York to continue her career. She says that her first impressions of New York were less than favorable and that she did not become ‘settled’ there until she met her husband, Rick Ocasek, and decided to stay permanently.
Paulina’s first trip back to Czechoslovakia was in 1991, after the fall of communism. She has returned several times for visits, although much of her family is now in the United States, including her mother and brother. Paulina has made a point to continue Czech traditions and celebrate Czech holidays. Her sons, Jonathan and Oliver, are connected to their Czech heritage, and her younger son especially enjoys Czech history and culture. After a successful modeling and acting career, Paulina has turned to writing in recent years. She has written a children’s book and a novel and produces a column for the Huffington Post. Today, Paulina lives in Manhattan with her husband and sons.
Paulina remembers her childhood
“My childhood was delightful. It was wonderful, even though my parents left to go to Sweden and they left me behind with my maternal grandmother, and that happened when I was three years old and that happened during the Russian invasion in 1968. So my parents got on a motorcycle and they escaped across the border to Austria, like many other people were doing at the time, and I suppose this was quite a dangerous trip so they didn’t want to take a three year old on a motorcycle between them, so they left me with my grandmother. I wasn’t going to see them again, my mother for three years and my father for six years.
“During this time I lived with my grandmother and, I think even before my parents left I was [part of] the old Czech family where grandma takes care of the grandchildren and the aunt takes care of you. You know, it takes a village to raise a family, so we were always either at grandmother’s house or in the country with our great-aunts, so I didn’t feel the loss of my parents too much because I was really used to my grandmother. I also had my other set of grandparents that lived two streets away – my paternal grandparents that were lovely and that I spent a lot of time with as well – so I was a very protected and happy child that felt no deprivation at that time. I do remember babička going and waiting in line for milk for me from 4:00 in the morning and all that. When I speak about my childhood here in America, people are sort of slightly horrified: ‘Really? You didn’t have a bathtub until you were eight years old?’ We had a toilet inside our house, but we didn’t have a bathtub for a long time, and my grandmother cooked on a coal stove; there was no central heating. It was very much turn of the century living.”
As a child in Czechoslovakia, Paulina was subject to certain indoctrination
“We were taught a lot of Russian propaganda, a lot of Russian songs. We left when I was in third grade, just at the end of third grade, but already by that time I had won a contest in which I recited a Russian poem; I won a Russian pen that never worked. My aspiration of my life was to be a Pioneer and to go and see Lenin’s grave. I thought that was just… That was it. That would have been it for my life. Fortunately that didn’t happen.”
You really felt that you wanted to do this?
“Yes, yes. It was very real to me. The Russians were our best friends. Everything Russian was… It was like a protective older brother. Things red were very good. The sickle and the star were symbols of goodness. Lenin was like a nice old uncle that you wanted to hang out with. I was a child; I believed all this stuff. You didn’t know any better. I was completely indoctrinated. I was a little communist from head to toe.”
Paulina’s mother snuck into Czechoslovakia to attempt to bring Paulina to Sweden
“They were sent a letter, somehow, from the Czech government saying that since they had abandoned me, I should be adopted to a suitable Czech family for the proper communist upbringing unless they returned to claim me – which was a bit of a problem since if they returned to claim me they would be put in jail since they were criminals for leaving in the first place, and if they didn’t then I was going to be taken away from my grandmother and given to somebody else, so this was not a good situation in any way. At this point, they had become sort of celebrities in Sweden and they put together this plan, I think with some Swedish journalists that were going to have rights to the story and pictures and they were going to do a documentary and all this stuff, and so they got together two Swedish adventure pilots that were going to fly a plane into the Czech Republic. One of the pilots’ wives sort of looked like my mother, so my mother took her passport, and she had a wig and she glasses to look like this lady. So they decided they were going to fly into Czechoslovakia. They were going to fly into Brno, which was the closest big city to where I lived, they were going to get a car, and they were going to drive to Prostějov; they were going to kidnap me on my from school; they weren’t going to tell anybody, grandparents or anybody, because the grandparents might try to stop them or delay them or something. This was very important that it was all happening very quickly. They were going to kidnap me on my way to or from school, take me to the airport and leave. That was the plan and, like all well-laid plans, it didn’t quite work out that way.
“What happened was they landed fine in Brno, they rented a car, and they were driving on the highway from Brno to Prostějov, and they got caught for speeding. So they were taken to a police station; they started getting interrogated; things weren’t looking right – maybe they’re not who they claim they are, and there was also maybe a question of a possible anonymous letter that had reached the Czechoslovakian police or authorities that said my mother was coming to the country in order to kidnap me. I’m not too sure about this part of the story and I think my parents aren’t either, but I remember it mentioned that it could have been a possibility because it was very quick they way they sort of nabbed them in the car, brought them to the police station and all of the sudden started bringing in my mother’s friends: ‘Do you recognize this woman?’ And most of my mother’s friends looked at my mother and said ‘Never seen her before,’ which screwed them in the long run, but good for them as people. And then of course there’s that one odd uncle that’s like ‘Anna, what are you doing back?!’ So they all got put in jail.”
She was placed on house arrest until Paulina was able to leave the country several years later
“Then my mother was under house arrest for a year or more, possibly the entire time she was in the Czech Republic. I’m not sure. I do remember we had police renting an apartment across the street with guys hanging out the windows with binoculars, taking the names of everybody that walked into our house. My mother didn’t have any friends at first for a long time because nobody dared to visit her; they would all lose their jobs. My father this whole time is in Sweden, fueling the fire in Sweden [playing] the devastated father: ‘Oh my god, my wife, my children.’ It worked out well that way; he was stoking the fires in Sweden and my mother was trapped in the Czech Republic with me, and now my baby brother. That took three years of nothing happening. It was sort of a stand-off. My mother there in the house, always being watched, my father over in Sweden, and the Swedes were just going at it. There were journalists coming to the Czech Republic. Of course this is all very illegal, so it had to be very hush-hush that there were Swedish journalists coming over and they would take all these pictures of us.
“For three years, my father kept fighting his battle over there in Sweden, and the Swedes were on-board. God bless all of them; the entire nation of Sweden. I owe it all to them really because the people kept writing letters; the Swedish hockey team wouldn’t play the Czechs in the Olympics because of us. The Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was supposed to make a state visit and refused to make a state visit because of us. You know, we were cause célèbre. After three years, I guess the Czechs just went ‘This is more trouble than it’s worth. Passports here. Bye. Don’t come back. You’re no longer Czech; we want nothing to do with you.’ They actually kicked us out.”
After leaving Czechoslovakia, it was difficult for Paulina to see her grandparents who remained behind
“I wasn’t allowed to go back to Czechoslovakia. When we got kicked out, in ’73, we got kicked out. We were not allowed in ever. As long as the communists were in power, that was completely off-limits to us. This means the woman that brought me up, really, was my babička and I wasn’t allowed to see her because now it was the situation that we were in Sweden and, to me, what felt like my real family was in Czechoslovakia and we had no way of seeing each other. Those were some very, very bad years for me, some very sad years, because I felt like I was taken away from my home and I wanted to go back. I’d much rather have been in the Czech Republic because I didn’t know. So, about once a year, my mother would save up enough money and we would go to Poland or Yugoslavia or Romania or Hungary, one of the communist countries, and my relatives would go there, like my mother’s sister and my cousins, my grandmother, and we would meet up with them. For a week or two we would have a holiday together in one of the communist countries to get to see each other.”
Although Paulina did not have a good impression of New York, she grew to love the city she now calls home
“First of all, it wasn’t very pretty. But I was not shown the pretty parts. I was stuck somewhere in Midtown on 56th Street, just concrete buildings all around, all the people. Everything was so rushed and so money-oriented. If you lived in Paris and you don’t know where to go in New York, the food wasn’t overwhelmingly good. To me, it was anti-culture. Nobody cared about books here; nobody cared about classical music; nobody cared about art. It was all money. It just felt like it was not a world that made any sense to me. But of course, being young and arrogant, I just didn’t really want to explore it. I took it at face value of what I saw when I was here, I was having a terrible time, and I thought ‘This place sucks. I can’t wait to get back to Paris.’ So later on, when I started considering actually moving here because of the money – because I wasn’t modeling to get pictures out of it; I was modeling to make money and the proposition was just undownturnable – I started searching out the different areas. The ones that wouldn’t be so what I thought New York was, but that I thought would feel right for me. And I did, of course. New York is a city of all cities. It has a little bit of everything. You can find Tokyo here; you can find France.”
Paulina reflects on putting down roots in several different places throughout her life
“When you live in a country, when you plant your roots in a country, it’s really about that. It’s about roots. It’s about soaking up the nourishment of your environment. This is children’s songs, children’s stories, pop culture going on around you, and when you move as an adult, as a fully-formed person, to another country to settle, you’re missing all this roots stuff. You’re missing all this basic stuff that everybody else grew up with, all these references that you don’t have. So I got my Czech ones, then I moved to Sweden and I had to re-root my roots and go to the Swedish ones, and then I had to do it in France and then I had to do it in America. Because I did it so early, I think I was conscious that this is what you have to do to live in that country. You can’t just live on the country. You can’t just sit on the surface of a country and pretend you live there. You have to learn everything from the beginning, and I’m the richer person for it, actually having learned four different countries from the ground up. It gets a little confusing sometimes.”
Category: New York City, Oral History