Peter Bisek (born Petr Bísek), 1941
Peter Bisek was born in Prague in 1941 and grew up in the Braník district of the city. His father was a civil engineer and his mother, who had studied philosophy and philology at Charles University, stayed home to raise Peter and his sister and two brothers. Peter enjoyed sports and was an avid basketball player. He recalls spending summers at a camp run by his Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren.
Peter attended gymnázium but says that he was denied the opportunity to continue his education after abstaining from a vote to expel two of his classmates wrongfully accused of cheating. He found employment at a print shop in Prague and worked several manual jobs there before entering into an apprenticeship in typography. Peter was told that he would be sent to study graphic arts at Leipzig University, but four years later, he was denied the opportunity and instead offered membership in the Communist Party. He says that these events led him to make plans for leaving the country. In 1963, Peter married his wife, Vera, who worked in a publishing house. In May 1965, Peter and Vera took a bus tour to East Germany. They then changed their destination on their paperwork and traveled to Sweden, where they stayed for six months on a work visa. Peter says that although they could have easily stayed in Sweden, they both wanted to leave Europe, and he hoped to continue his education in the United States. In November 1965, Peter and Vera sailed to Brooklyn, New York, and settled in Astoria.
Peter’s first job in the United States was as a linotype operator for Americké Listy, a Czechoslovak newspaper printed in Manhattan. He took English classes at NYU and, after joining the typographical union, decided not to return to school. In 1971, Peter and Vera moved to Long Island. There they had two children, Veronica and Jonathan. In 1986, after working for The New York Times and Newsday, Peter and Vera started their own typography studio called Typrints. The original Americké Listy folded in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution and, after a few months, Peter decided to revive the publication. The first issue of their Československý Týdeník (in 1997 renamed Americké Listy) came out in April 1990 and, for the next 20 years, Peter and Vera published each issue, until June 2010 when they retired.
Peter has been active in the local and national Czech community. He is a member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) and on the board of directors of the American Friends of the Czech Republic (AFoCR). For six years, Peter served as president of the Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society of Astoria, which runs the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden. During Peter’s term, the organization increased its visibility and membership, and added new students to its Czech and Slovak language school. In 1997, Peter received the Presidential Medal of Merit First Class from then-president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, for the role his paper played in the Czech Republic’s early acceptance into NATO. In 2005, Peter and Vera also received the Gratias Agit award from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs for “spreading the good word of the Czech Republic abroad.”
In addition to his activities in the Czech-American community, Peter is an avid, internationally-recognized rowing coach and veteran oarsman. He has coached three U.S. junior national champions and is considering returning to his old rowing club in Prague to take a coaching position which, he says, would bring him closer to his son Jonathan’s family, now based in Plzeň. Today, Peter lives in Glen Cove, New York, with Vera, who is enjoying her new role as a grandmother.
Although Peter hoped to attend university, he says he was not allowed to pursue higher education
“It wasn’t a difficult life economically, but it was really very much supervised by the totalitarian regime, so if you weren’t politically recognized as approving of the system, all kind of difficulties would arise. I remember when I was graduating from gymnázium, there was some case as two of my classmates were accused of stealing some money from the Pioneer organization but I knew they were not guilty, that somebody from the faculty was putting it on them. There was an election [to determine] if they should be expelled from school or whatever. In our class, we had a vote and I was one of three – nobody voted against it – we were looking for proof and proof didn’t come, so I abstained. The director of the school took it so seriously that she made a personal phone call to make sure that we couldn’t continue higher education.”
Peter explains the effect the communist system had on his life
“We never collaborated with the system, but I think the system kind of subconsciously wrote off a certain percentage of the population as ‘We will not bother them much. We will not let them study, but besides that, they won’t do anything subversive.’ So we were not really under terrific scrutiny. There was a lady across the street who made sure we didn’t…She reported anything on us but, still, it wasn’t awful. It wasn’t life threatening. So we could kind of adjust our lives, and we were church-goers. We were known for that and it was probably held against us, but we just wouldn’t change our lifestyles.”
Peter says that certain small things made it easier for him and Vera to leave the country in 1965
“For example, if you were newlyweds, where do you live? To get an apartment was difficult. You waited years for an apartment. To have money to build a house, you had to be really cooperating with the system or stealing left and right. There were many people like that. But my wife, she was already working at the time for six years and she was saving money and she was a member of the cooperative where eventually you were entitled to a certain apartment in a certain area. So she had already saved enough money; she was on the list that year to get an apartment and everybody knew about it: ‘Oh the Biseks are getting an apartment. They are lucky. They are getting a two plus one apartment in the new apartment house in Podolí’ – which was a very nice area. So nobody thought that we would be leaving, having this opportunity. She had the money saved in a savings account, so that was one thing that worked for us. No suspicion. Second thing, every place of work, if it’s a factory or a publishing house, has it’s workers’ committee that’s supposed to be ruled by the Communist branch in that place, which decides what’s done and wasn’t done. So it was a kind of fake, self-governing body, and in that printing plant where I worked, I represented youth on that committee, even though I wasn’t a Communist member – not all were members of the Communist Party. So again, everybody thought ‘Hey he’s going up; he’s starting his career.’ There was no suspicion that I was going to leave. And also, I played basketball and I broke my pinkie finger playing basketball, so I was on medical leave. So for about two weeks, I wasn’t going to work so I couldn’t even hint at it. They had no clue.”
After working in Sweden for six months and saving money, Peter and Vera sailed to New York
“We bought a one-way ticket by cargo ship and we were one of the last ones who came on a ship and landed on a dock in Brooklyn. Docks were still functioning docks at the time, so I remember after we got off the ship early in the morning, we are standing in the middle of the [docks], longshoremen all around. Standing there with two bags, $180 in our pockets and [thinking] ‘What are we supposed to do?’ We had a sponsor who we never met. The sponsor went bankrupt before we arrived, so we were standing there: ‘What am I supposed to do? Should we take the same boat going back?’ But there was another passenger on the ship. She was a young American lady who just graduated from architecture design in Rhode Island [Rhode Island Institute of Design] – I remember quite a bit – and when she saw us she took us in, and it was quite a shock because she lived on Fifth Avenue. She had a limousine with a chauffeur waiting for her. So the first week we spent on Fifth Avenue, just across the street from the Metropolitan Museum [of Art].”
Peter and Vera edited and printed a Czechoslovak newspaper for 20 years
“We wanted to, first of all, inform, because information was, at that time, was most important. Phone calls and faxes just wouldn’t do it and the internet was only beginning. So information, and then slowly we grew from eight to twelve pages, and then sixteen pages, and we filled those extra pages with more than just information. Once in a while we would publish a new book, something that wasn’t on the market yet. At first we had a contributor who was writing a children’s book, so each issue we would have a terrific short story for children. We had one page devoted to children. We had a page that grew professionally and became first rate in sports, because we were very close friends with a professional sports journalist. Very educated and broad-minded; he traveled around the world. We had several pages devoted to the history of Czechoslovakia. We had sections which were strictly Slovak and we had sections for jokes and cooking. Every issue. And crossword puzzles. We had a commentary of course. We had a lady who was a founder, in 1968 in Prague, of the independent party and was even running for Czech parliament at the time. They left in 1968, they stayed here until 1993 and then they went back and she would write to us a letter from Prague. It was very beautiful and short. So they became the basics of our paper. Sixteen pages filled in very nicely.”
Category: New York City, Oral History