Susan Lucak (born Zuzana Lebedová), 1955
Susan Lucak was born in Teplice in northwestern Bohemia in 1955. Her parents, who were originally from the eastern part of Czechoslovakia, had moved to Teplice when her father Mirolslav became the conductor of the Northern Czech Symphony Orchestra. When Susan and her older sister were in school, Susan’s mother Jiřina went to work as an after-school teacher. Susan says that her parents had decided to leave Czechoslovakia shortly after the Communist coup in February 1948, but that they had to remain in the country when their plans fell through. In 1967, Susan’s family moved to Prague when her father got a job as the director of a music school there. She says that the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 21, 1968, once again led her parents to the decision to leave the country. In 1969, Susan’s family applied for travel permits to Yugoslavia; she says they were lucky to receive permission to travel through Austria, as one of Susan’s father’s students was performing at the Salzburg Music Festival. They left Czechoslovakia on April 17, 1969, and made their way to Vienna where they lived for over three months while awaiting permission to immigrate to the United States.
On July 25, 1969, Susan and her family arrived in New York City. They were given a room in a hotel in Manhattan and Susan’s parents both found work in a watch factory. Two months later, the family moved to an apartment in Queens and Susan began ninth grade. Susan’s parents lost their jobs two weeks before their first Christmas in the United States. Shortly thereafter, her mother began working on an assembly line for electrical switches (a job that she held for over 20 years) and her father found a job as a clerk on Wall Street. He later taught piano lessons and also wrote and published music compositions. Susan says that it took her a couple years to become comfortable with the English language – a length of time that was frustrating for her. When she was 16, she began selling coffee and lunches in an office on Wall Street in order to save money for college. She attended Barnard College and majored in biology, and then enrolled at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Susan has spent the majority of her professional career as a gastroenterologist with Columbia University. She received her American citizenship in 1975 and returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time in 1978.
Shortly after arriving in the United States, Susan and her family began attending picnics and bazaars put on by the Czech community. She was a member of the Czech dance group, Klub Mládeže. Susan has been a member of the Dvorak American Heritage Association since the group was founded and is the current president of the organization. She also serves as a vice-president for the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association (BBLA). Susan has two children and says that her daughter in particular has a great affinity for Czech culture. Although she loves returning to the Czech Republic for visits, Susan is very happy to be living in Manhattan.
Susan’s father conducted an orchestra in Teplice
“My father, when he was a conductor of the Northern Czech Symphony Orchestra, he had to be present at the Communist meetings that were held in, let’s say, Teplice, and these Communist meetings were very long and in the beginning of the meetings, the orchestra that father conducted played the Czechoslovak national anthem, the Russian national anthem, and then the song ‘Internationale’, and those pieces of music were played at the beginning of those meetings and they were played at the end of the meetings and so the orchestra had to sit there for hours and hours and listen to these discussions that were endless. After some time, my father suggested that perhaps they could get a recording instead of the orchestra being there for so many hours, and what they told my father was that if he did not like doing that, then he may as well pack up and then go and work in coal mines. So he obviously retracted that and continued to sit at these meetings.
“Then there were things that happened in the school where he was a director where people were advanced based upon not their abilities necessarily, but based upon whether they belonged to the Communist Party and so on. So he always felt that in music, one cannot advance people based upon their participation in a party, and so there were certain frustrations that I think that he experienced because he was always interested in having a good quality school and good quality music teachers, and that wasn’t always possible. So I remember him speaking about that.”
On August 21, 1968, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia
“Approximately a week after the invasion, my father and I walked from Nusle to Václavské Náměstí [Wenceslas Square] and things had sort of somehow calmed down a little bit. There was less shooting and we were speaking with the Russian soldiers. People spoke Russian pretty well because it was a language everybody had to learn in school. All of the sudden, the soldiers started to shoot at us, so my father and I hit the ground and we crawled to a nearby street and all the doors to the buildings were closed because people were frightened, so my father and I, we crawled about a block and a half and made a turn and kind of disappeared from the scene on Václavské Náměstí. Then we walked quickly and ran back home. So it was a very, very scary time.”
Those were warning shots?
“They were warning shots. Nobody, to my knowledge, was killed during that time. But they were just sort of very arbitrary about shooting, and it was frightening.”
Susan’s parents once again began making plans in the spring of 1969 to try to leave the country
“The way this kind of worked out was that my father had a student that wanted to perform at the Salzburg Music Festival. So he said that he wanted to go to negotiate the details of the concert, and we wanted to go on vacation, as a family, to Yugoslavia. He applied for permission to go through Austria and stay there for four days, and we didn’t necessarily expect that we were going to get permission as a family to leave and do that, because we could have been told ‘Oh, don’t go through Austria. As a family, go through Hungary,’ and then for my father to go alone and negotiate the concert in Austria. But somehow, for reasons that we still do not understand until today, we got the permission to go for four days to Austria. So on April 17, 1969, we drove down to the southern border and we couldn’t see the signs because the snow was sticking to the signs and so we got lost and I think my father was a little nervous. Then we got through to the Czech-Austrian border and the officials at the border, they kind of had a sense that we were escaping and they made us come out of the car. They searched through, even under the hood of the car, and they searched through everything, and the only thing that we had that would have been suspicious were English textbooks. Because we knew we wanted to come to the United States or go to an English-speaking country and we were not sure that we would be able to find textbooks. So somehow, my father took these textbooks, and we were nervous about that. Why would we have been taking English textbooks to Austria? But they didn’t find the textbooks. My father had sort of hidden them, so they didn’t find the textbooks.
“Then finally when we drove through, which was around 5:00 in the morning on April 18, we then went through the Austrian part of the border, and there the Austrians just basically saluted us, they looked at our papers and then they allowed us to come in, and once we got across the border, we just stopped the car and we just sat and couldn’t believe that we had gotten across the Iron Curtain and that we were in a free country and that we escaped the oppressive communist country. And yet at the same time, I think that there was also a sense of sadness of leaving your homeland, with the idea that we would never be able to return. We thought that this was a step where we would never return to Czechoslovakia because we never thought that communism would ever not be there.”
After crossing the border, Susan and her family stayed in Vienna for three months
“I did not go to school. I told my parents that I didn’t want to go to school because we came in April and I felt it was towards the end of the school year and I did not want to start learning German, and so I started studying English on my own using these textbooks that we brought from Czechoslovakia. So I used them during the day and then in the evening when my parents and sister came home, I would give them the textbooks so they would learn them and then I was sort of taking care of other things. So my job in a way – they were working as gardeners – and my job was to kind of take care of the paperwork that was necessary to immigrate to the United States. So my father would write down for me where to go and what to say, and then I would go and actually take care of the paperwork that was required for us to immigrate to the United States.”
Susan and her family arrived in New York City on July 25, 1969
“I remember the very first Sunday we went to Central Park thinking that we were going to a park the way one would go in Europe, and we were dressed in our best clothes. I remember I was wearing this white blouse with a navy blue skirt and matching shoes, and expecting that we will be strolling in Central Park. And what we were seeing was this wild scene that you kind of see in the movie Hair, by Milos Forman, where people were barely dressed. Men were topless and wearing no shirts and wearing minimal clothing and jeans with bell-bottoms, and women were not wearing bras and they were very open with one another in terms of expressing their affection publicly. And I was 14 years old and I just didn’t even know where to look, and it was all very embarrassing.”
The first Christmas in the U.S. was hard for Susan’s family
“It was very hard that first Christmas. We were happy to be in the United States, certainly, but there was a certain harsh reality where my parents had no job. So we bought a Christmas tree for one dollar and we bought very simple decorations. We obviously had no money to buy any presents, but that was kind of not really that important to, and we sat around the Christmas tree. I have to say that we were happy to be in the United States, we were happy to be in a country which was democratic and we had freedoms, but there was also a certain harshness about being in a country and not having a job and having somewhat of an uncertain future.”
Susan felt frustrated that she was not learning the English language quickly enough
“I kind of felt that when I came here at the age of 13 that I, in a sense, lost my childhood because of the responsibility of learning English and trying to make it here. I kind of felt a certain responsibility to my parents for making this step, and I felt that I obviously wanted to succeed in the United States and so I felt that I needed to take advantage of opportunities that were presenting here that I would not have had in Czechoslovakia. So there was a certain kind of heaviness that I felt even at the age of 13 and 14, and I felt that I really needed to succeed in a way for my family, as well as for myself. I worked pretty hard and I have to say that I was a little disappointed in myself after six months of working pretty hard and studying and feeling that I wasn’t speaking the language fluently. It took about two years before I felt comfortable with the language.”
Susan describes her involvement with the Dvořák American Heritage Association
“I became a Dvořák lover when I came to the United States in 1969 and everything was very unfamiliar and the only thing that reminded me of home and Czechoslovakia was Dvořák’s music. I knew it rather well because music was always around my house and, also, I always went with my father, with my parents, to concerts in Czechoslovakia. So when we came here, the only thing that I heard that reminded me of home was Dvořák’s music, and it always sort of warmed my heart. So when his house, where Dvořák lived, on East 17th Street was threatened to be destroyed, I felt that I wanted to get involved and see if we could save the house or somehow honor Antonín Dvořák here in New York City in a way that made it very special for me. I felt a special connection that he was somebody who came from my homeland who had lived here in New York City, and I felt that he deserved to be honored here and so that’s how I got involved in the Dvorak American Heritage Association here in New York.”
Category: New York City, Oral History