Vera Plesek (maiden name Kosinová), born 1949
Vera Plesek was born in Vrchovina, northern Bohemia, in 1949. Her father, Petr, died when she was four, leaving her mother, Františka, to raise her and her brother on her own. Vera’s mother held strong anti-communist views and because of this, as well as for reasons of her health, she refused to work. In the early 1950s, Vera’s mother was sentenced to four years in prison for criticizing the communist government, though was granted a pardon after the death of President Klement Gottwald in 1953, before she was sent to jail. Vera started school in Vrchovina, but was bullied so badly because of her mother’s behavior that she was moved to a larger school in Nová Paka after two years.
When she was 15, Vera left school and started to work at a road equipment factory called Silniční stroje a zařízení Heřmanice Nová Paka, in a job which she says she ‘loved’. Among other duties, Vera worked as a crane operator, welder and upholsterer. She left the factory at the beginning of 1969 when a disagreement with her mother led her to look for a new home. She started working as a dishwasher in a hotel in Špindlerův Mlýn which offered employees room and board. After one week of washing dishes, she wrote to a Czech-American family friend, Jimmy Valesh in New Albin, Iowa, asking whether she could come and visit him there. Vera left Czechoslovakia legally on September 9, 1969. When she took a job in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one month later and did not return, she was handed a nine-month sentence in absentia for leaving Czechoslovakia. Vera has lived in Cedar Rapids ever since. For more than 30 years, she worked in the radiology department of St. Luke’s Hospital. She also wrote a regular column for the Czech-American newspaper Hlasatel for over a quarter of a century. She became an American citizen in 1976. Vera currently lives in Cedar Rapids with her third husband, Brian, and works as an artist.
Vera’s aunt was a survivor of the Lidice massacre in 1942
“She was very lonesome, ‘til her dying day she was looking for those two children the Germans took away from her. So she went to fortune tellers and every which way to find out if they were still alive. So that was kind of a sad story. She died in ’68 right before the Russian invasion, which was nice too because she praised the communists for freeing her from the concentration camp. So she was really a very communist-oriented person, which my mother wasn’t, so there was friction with those two, you know. Because, my aunt from Lidice, she thought it was the top of her life that they came and she got to go home from the concentration camp. That’s why she praised them and she didn’t live long enough to see when they came and tried to take the country or took the country over again.”
Vera says her mother’s loud opinions ‘hurt’ her and her brother
“It was hurting us as kids, because I think most of, the whole village was communist – maybe they didn’t believe in it all the way, but they were – just for them to exist, you know. And then there was us, and we weren’t. So, I started school in Vrchovina, that was five years, but in the second grade I had such a hard time with kids, you know, chasing me down the street and throwing rocks at me, that for the third year I went to Nová Paka to school. [My mother] asked for them to transfer me to this big school and there were like four kids in the class whose parents were not communist. And we were okay already, nobody was pointing their finger at us like they did in that little village, you know. So, needless to say I didn’t have much love for that little village! Somebody once wondered ‘how could you leave all your friends?’ At the big town of Nová Paka, which was 15,000 people, you could get lost already a little bit, especially in the school. That was a lot better for me, I felt more safe, even if it was a half-hour walk, you know, instead of going to our little school.”
Vera remembers the Soviet-led invasion in 1968
“I went to work, they had like a general strike for an hour, you know. I didn’t want to participate in it – you are just hurting yourselves, you know, if you are not going to work for an hour, you are not hurting the Russians, you’ll just have more and more work. And then one evening I went, it was late, around 9:00 or 10:00, I walked home from some movie or something, and there come the trucks, you know. I said ‘hmm, now what will happen?’ They stopped, all of them, and so this big guy comes out and starts talking to me. Well, at the time I spoke very good Russian and so I wasn’t about to lie. No, no, I was chicken. There were like a hundred of them. So they were asking for roads, you know, they showed the map and I told them they were going the right direction, you know. I wasn’t going to say ‘go this way, come back and wipe this village off the map!’”
Vera rediscovered her Czech identity at a Moravian Days festival in Chicago in the 1970s
“It was just so emotional, so exciting for me. I said ‘I cannot live without this. This is it!’ I sang and sang and everybody was so happy, you know. I said ‘I want to live like this again’. And my husband, well, he got kind of frustrated, because the lady we stayed with said ‘I will translate everything for him’, but, well, she didn’t. Everybody was laughing and smiling and telling jokes and singing songs and he just sat there, you know. And so he got drinking a little more than he should and at like 6:00, 5:00, in the morning he wanted to drive back to Cedar Rapids because he didn’t want to be there anymore. But by the next day he settled down. In the middle of Moravian Day when there were 60 people on the stage dancing Cardas, he was out there sleeping, and I said ‘Okay, so, this doesn’t work’.
“And, we came back home, and I could not talk, I could not do anything. I just sat there, on the couch, and I said ‘This is it, I want to live in Chicago. I want to be Czech again’. Because it was like 90% of my body just came to life.”
After she left Czechoslovakia, Vera’s relationship with her mother continued to be rocky
“With my mother I think it was like three years before she finally mellowed out enough to write me a decent letter – something nice, you know. But I met her, she came to Austria, she came on the train in 1982. And she started arguing with me just where she quit 15 years before that. I said ‘Mother! How do I know why I did what I did when I was 17 when I am 33 now!’ I don’t know why I did what I did at that time, you know? She just went on and on. She took pride in it that we didn’t get along.”
Vera says the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia made one mistake in particular
“The trouble with communism was that when they got in there, they locked up people and threw out the people who were ambitious and knew something, okay? Because if you do your own business, you know, it’s a 25-hours-a-day job, not just 24. You have to constantly, forever think about it, you know, and invent different processes for making some things. And they got rid of these people who were capable of this thinking, you know. That was the trouble, they locked them up and they put somebody who didn’t know a thing about it – they made him a boss, you know. It doesn’t work that way. There has to be somebody who knows how to do it, you know. You’re not going to explain to me how to make this, because you don’t know anything about it, and you’re going to be my boss? So what am I going to think of you?
“This was the worst mistake of communism, that they did this. Because after that they didn’t have capable people. And the ones to whom they said ‘You can’t go to school’… Like I said, with myself, it was my mother who said ‘I don’t want you to go to school’, it wasn’t the government, you know. Because I’m sure, since we were so poor, I probably could have gone to school. But mother insisted it cost money. At the time it didn’t! You know, that was all free!”
Category: Oral History