Vera Roknic (born Věra Broučková), born 1926
Vera Roknic was born and raised in the Nový Žižkov district of Prague. Her father, Jan, was a manager at the city’s main post office, where he met Vera’s mother, Marie, who worked as a long-distance telephone operator in the building. Vera studied at the capital’s Vyšší Dívčí School on Vodičkova Street and then at the Akademie obchodní Dr. Edvarda Beneše [Benes Business School]. Her studies were interrupted by WWII and she was sent to Lyšov, in southern Bohemia, to work on her relatives’ farm. During the War, Vera lost her younger sister, who fell ill with meningitis and was unable to see a doctor, as the hospitals were so full of soldiers, says Vera. After the War, Vera graduated and began working as a multilingual secretary for an import/export company in Prague.
In January 1947, Vera went to Sweden on what was supposed to be a one-year work exchange. She successfully prolonged her stay once, but when she visited the Czech Consulate to extend her stay a second time in the summer of 1948, she was told it was time she returned home. Vera wrote to her parents who told her to come back only when Czechoslovakia was again ‘free’. On the basis of this letter, Vera applied for asylum in Sweden. Later that year, she started meeting other Czechs and Slovaks who had been taken in by Sweden, having fled Czechoslovakia. One of these immigrants was Vaclav Pavel, who became her first husband. The couple were married in 1950, and, on the insistence of Vaclav – who feared the spread of communism in Europe – the pair left Sweden for America in 1952. They moved to Chicago, where Vera quickly found a job at International Harvester. In 1954, Vera gave birth to a daughter, Jana. It was at this time that Vaclav fell ill with Hodgkin’s disease, for which a cure had still not been found. Vera and Vaclav ran into financial hardship and were helped by the Czechoslovak National Council of Women in Exile, among other organizations. Two years later, Vaclav died.
In 1960, Vera married Sava Roknic, another Czech émigré who had settled in Chicago. He adopted Jana, and in 1962, Vera and Sava had a son, David. Vera took a job in the banking sector, which she still works in to this day. Vera, now widowed, is active in many Czech and Slovak organizations, such as the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) and Sokol. She works closely with the Czech Mission in Brookfield, Illinois.
When Vera was told she must return to Czechoslovakia in 1948, she wrote to her parents for advice
“I went to the Czech Embassy, or Consulate at that time, in Stockholm and talked to a very unpleasant officer. I don’t remember his name, but he said ‘Slečno Broučková, you are starting to speak Czech with an accent’, and I thought, ‘That’s not possible! Even though I haven’t spoken Czech this entire time’ – I still didn’t think I had an accent in Czech. ‘It’s time that you return home’ [he said], and they would not allow me to stay. So, now I had to make a decision, shall I stay or…? So now I did write home. And I did get a letter from my dad, and he said, ‘You left a free Czechoslovakia, I want you to come back to free Czechoslovakia.’ Of course, he never thought that the communists would take all these years. There wouldn’t be a free Czechoslovakia for another 40 years! So, at that time, I had to make a decision, and I went to the Swedish consulate and asked for asylum. So that was one of these major things that I had to really… which changed my entire life, actually.”
Vera met her first husband Vaclav at a Czech cultural event in Stockholm
“Somehow I found there was a Czech group – emigrants – who put on a play. I always liked poetry and reading and theatre and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to see this!’ I don’t know who told me or how I came about it. So, I went, and I met this bunch of guys from Czechoslovakia, and they all spoke Czech, obviously and, you know, now it started to hit me. Even though I had Swedish friends and, actually, a Swedish boyfriend, here were these people who could talk about what was in Prague, who is Nezval, who is Seifert. And this guy who then became my husband also wrote poetry and played piano, and all that sort of did it for me. All of a sudden I realized how much I am missing, you know, not being with a Czech, the literature, I mean, the Swedish guy was nice, he was kind, he was okay, but, I couldn’t tell him, you know, ‘Na Václavském náměstí, you know that…’, there was nothing to bind me or bring me back. And then I was helping these guys with Swedish. They did not know the language, they needed help translating or whatever so…”
Vaclav was detained on Ellis Island when the couple reached the United States
“It was not as easy as I was expecting it to be, because when we did arrive in New York, I could see the Statue of Liberty and thought ‘Here we are!’, but we were detained. We were not let go off the boat because of my husband’s X-ray, his chest X-ray. He had a couple of pneumonias when he was a younger man and I guess they left some scars on his chest, and the Americans were very careful, even though we had an X-ray done in Sweden, which was clear, we had to go to Ellis Island. They wanted to check him out, so that he was not bringing any illness into the States. So that was sort of a setback, I thought, I mean, I thought when I saw the Statue of Liberty, that I have just a step and hop over to New York, well, it didn’t happen until three days later.
“Actually, it was scary, I tell you! That was one place I was sort of afraid because I hadn’t expected this, there were many people detained at Ellis Island, and we were separated – there were women in one section, men in another section, and they did have to take him to a hospital, I believe, or a doctor, and have a new X-ray done and have him proclaimed clear of any illness.”
Vera explains why she and her husband chose to settle in Chicago
“I really wanted to stay in New York and look for a job at the United Nations, I thought that with my languages, maybe I could get something. However, people were telling me that there is a great large community in Chicago, and import/export companies – even though I thought, for my languages, I would have been better in New York. But, for whatever reason, because of the Czech community, I guess… In New York, I didn’t know anybody. I had no contacts at all. But here we guessed that maybe we would have an easier beginning, so that was the reason.”
When Vaclav fell ill with Hodgkin’s lymphoma the couple were plunged into financial hardship
“When my husband was sick and I was really hurting for money, because not enough money was coming in and lots of it was going out, I was really, you know how people say ‘You live from paycheck to paycheck’? That’s what I had to do at that time, which was so much against my upbringing, against my thinking. But that is what I had to do. I was praying that I would not get a run in my nylons! At that time nylons could be fixed, you know, but I worked in a downtown office, a very nice office. I couldn’t go to work with a run in my nylons, there was no way!
“It really was hard at that time. There were organizations – I know for one Christmas that the Czechoslovak National Council of Women in Exile did help me. I mean, I did get some help from the Czech community. And then, after my husband died, actually, financially, it was easier for me. Even though I had to have a babysitter and all that, but somehow I was able to manage better because… It was actually easier for me at that time.”
Vera regained Czech citizenship after the Velvet Revolution in 1989
“I was stripped of my citizenship unfairly. I did not do anything to the Republic causing them to take it away. And, for 50 years it bothered me that it was unfair! Or 40 years – not 50. And then, when it was possible to regain it, I did. So… I am in my heart still Czech and in my existence, I am American.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History