Viera Jamrich (born Viera Jamrichová), 1952
Viera Jamrich was born in Nitra, western Slovakia, in 1952. Her father Ludovit was an accountant and her mother Antónia was a clerk at a canning factory. When her father was promoted at his work, the family moved to Prievidza. Growing up, Viera also spent time in Kamanová, where her mother’s family lived, and Topol’čany, where her father inherited land and built a house. Viera was attending a technical high school when, following the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, her mother decided to emigrate. Viera accompanied her mother to Vancouver where she took English classes and found a part-time job. Viera’s mother was unhappy abroad and, although Viera did not want to leave, the two returned to Czechoslovakia in August 1969. After graduating from high school, Viera studied mechanical engineering at Slovak Technical University (STU) in Bratislava. Her first job after graduation was working for the engineering company Montostroj. Later, she joined the faculty at STU and taught engineering classes. At this time, Viera married and had a son named Marek.
In early 1982, Viera began making plans to leave the country for a second time. Because she felt it would be difficult to travel while working at the university, she quit her job there and found employment with an aviation company. After receiving the necessary permissions and visas, Viera went on a two week trip to Turkey in June 1982. She claimed political asylum while there and lived in a refugee camp in Istanbul for five months. She subsequently traveled to Italy where she stayed in a refugee camp in Rome for several months before flying to the United States. In March 1983, Viera arrived in New York City and says that, when she got off the plane, she felt like she was ‘back at home.’ An acquaintance of Viera’s helped her find a job as a draftsman in Bethesda, Maryland. She says that as her English improved, she was able to work her way up to an engineering position in the same company. In 1989, Viera received American citizenship and was granted permission to travel to Czechoslovakia. She visited very soon after the Velvet Revolution and brought her son back with her to the United States. Viera is an active member of the Slovak American Society of Washington, D.C. and has hosted the society’s picnic, helped organize the Svätý Mikuláš [St. Nicholas] party, and served on the board of directors. Today, she is an engineer for the U.S. Postal Service and lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
Viera and her mother lived in Vancouver for one year
“I loved it. I mean, I loved it. That was the first time that I opened my eyes – I was 16 and 17, that was the time – and I was like a sponge. I absorbed everything. Everything, good and bad, but I lived only a good life because I could not afford to be some silly person. They put us in school where we learned English, and in the evening I would be at home. Actually, I was able to get a part-time job with a Jewish Czechoslovakian person who emigrated before 1938 and he was so kind. He had plenty of servants; he didn’t need me really, but he was kind enough that he paid me and all my job was to serve him lunch, really on a silver platter, because he wanted me to have something to do. He wanted to have a reason to pay me for some work so I could earn the money. I mean, let me tell you, it was a totally unnecessary job, but he was kind enough that he gave it to me so I could make money, I could go to school and enjoy my life while I was in Vancouver.”
Because of her chosen field of study, Viera did not have trouble getting into university
“Not quite. I did not have extreme difficulties for one reason. Because I’m the black sheep of a family. What that means is, my parents were both in finances, and lots of people wanted to get into college of economy but me, because that’s what my parents were. I went to an engineering school. I’m a mechanical engineer. The system at the time – what we were told at the time – you imperialists were going to attack us and you were going to destroy us. So therefore, we needed our men who would be working in military factories, making tanks and everything, and we women needed to run the show. So they welcomed us with open arms. If I had wanted to go maybe into a different field, maybe if I wanted to be a doctor or a dentist, maybe that would have been a problem with my father’s situation, but it wasn’t because I applied for mechanical engineering.
“We were taught quite well. What it was is – I understand it now, I didn’t understand it then – the communist system said basically this: ‘We are paying for it; therefore, you will take the classes we tell you to take. You are not going to take any Mickey Mouse classes. There will be no Mickey Mouse classes. We are paying for it; therefore, you take Math I in the first semester, Physics I first semester, Statics, and there were five courses in every single semester. By the end of the fifth year, we will turn you into a mechanical engineer.’ And indeed they did.”
Viera says that she had to give up one of her habits when she joined a university faculty
“When I finished college and I became a university professor, I didn’t go to church in Bratislava. I would not dare. I didn’t want some students to see me. They could go because they were students. If you are a student, you can go to church. What is going to hurt you? Nothing. But if you have this job and somebody sees you and somebody reports you, you will get into trouble, and I couldn’t get into trouble. It’s not like here, you quit and you go somewhere else, no. It stays in your record forever, and so I wouldn’t go to church. But when I back to my little village, behind everybody’s back, that’s when I went to church. I carried on my ordinary life. That’s where you could be the person that you were.”
Prior to leaving the country for the second time, Viera made plans to facilitate her escape
“I quit [my job at the] university because I knew that I would not be able to get the permission to travel, so I quit the job and I went to work for an aviation company, and I worked there for only half a year. I have thought that was bad behavior on my part. I did purposely quit my job and went there to deceive them because I wanted a fresh start and I wanted the permit. I needed permission from the president of the company and I needed permission from the Communist Party member, and I needed also from the police department in my region. I needed so many permissions that yes, well, I deceived them. I admit that. I had done this, and so I went and worked there, only for one reason. Really I changed my job to be able to do this because otherwise I would have never been able to get out.”
Viera arrived in the United States on March 28, 1983
“What I do remember is that when I got off the plane and when my foot touched the ground of the connecting bridge, I had this feeling that I never had before and I don’t think I will ever have again. It felt like I was back at home again. It wasn’t Canada, but it was this Western society, Western, American society that I felt that I was finally back at home. I didn’t have to pretend anymore, I didn’t have to try to be married, I didn’t have to do this, I didn’t have to do anything that I had tried to do in that system. It was what I realized, everything I had been doing was nothing else but hard work. It was work on my part because I tried to fit. I didn’t fit. Once I came back from Vancouver I didn’t fit ever again, but I tried. I knew who I was, I was a 20 year old young person, so I tried. Nobody told me, it wasn’t my mother or my father who told me ‘You have to do this and that.’ I tried on my own, but I never fit. And when I came here after so many years, that foot touched that ground, that’s what I remember how I felt, ‘I’m finally back at home.’ I don’t have to pretend anymore, anything. And I was free.”
Category: Oral History